DIYALA, Iraq — Gunmen allegedly associated with a pro-government Shiite militia slaughtered more than 70 worshippers at a Sunni mosque in Diyala province Friday, heightening Iraq’s sectarian divide in a volatile part of the country where government forces and their militia allies are battling militants from the Islamic State.
The gunmen, reported to be members of one of the volunteer Shiite militias that have been working alongside the Iraqi army for two months, reportedly took 30 minutes to execute men attending Friday prayers at the Mosaib bin Omair mosque, according to witnesses on the scene. But other accounts, being pushed by pro-government media outlets, claim the mosque was attacked by fighters from the Islamic State – who it is claimed used a suicide bomber followed by machine-gun fire – to punish local tribes for failing to support the nascent Islamic State’s caliphate project.
Regardless of the perpetrator, the scene was of epic carnage with at least 73 people killed, according to local health officials and eyewitnesses reached by phone at the scene.
“When we entered the mosque (after the killings) it looked like hell, like judgment day,” said Abu Abdullah, who lives near the mosque and heard the attack unfold. “Blood was everywhere.”
The massacre, according to local accounts, reportedly followed a failed attempt to attack pro-government forces with a roadside bomb. After it exploded, witnesses saw two trucks full of armed men with covered faces enter the mosque.
“They killed all the people in the mosque,” Abu Abdullah said.
Local government officials in Diyala province confirmed the attack and condemned the killings.
“We accuse the militias that did it,” said provincial Gov. Amir al Majami. “They are supposed to be fighting (the Islamic State) and be under the control of the Iraqi security forces.”
Assaib Ahl Haq, an Iranian trained- and equipped-militia that has been very active in Diyala in fighting the Islamic State, was being widely blamed on pro-Islamic State Twitter accounts but immediately issued a statement denying involvement.
The slaughter threatened to upend recent progress Iraqi leaders had made to create a new government that would unite its efforts against the Islamic State and resolve differences among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Parliament’s two primary Sunni blocs demanded an investigation into the killings and announced that they would withdraw from the formation of a new government under Prime Minister designate Haider al Abadi unless the culprits are handed over.
“This is a natural result of accepting armed groups in the state. The crimes of the militias are targeting the political process,” Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni, said in a news conference.
It also sparked calls for retribution from Sunnis in the province. Shiite militias have deployed to the area since June, when Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a fatwa calling his followers to defend their country against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State.
Internet forums associated with the Islamic State and its supporters immediately flooded the Internet with unconfirmed pictures of the carnage, along with calls to Sunnis to reject reconciliation with the Shiite-led government, which has been a long-assumed necessary first step to eliminating the Islamic State’s presence in Sunni-held areas.
Aymenn al Tamimi, who studies Iraqi insurgent groups for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, said that the massacre, if proven to be the work of Shiite militias, will embolden the Islamic State’s messaging to Iraq’s Sunni population that only it can protect them from the Shiite government that it says oppresses them. And it will only lead to a bloody response from the Islamic State and its Sunni tribal allies that will push the new government in Baghdad even further from successful reconciliation.
“It helps give a pretext for IS to say it will conduct revenge attacks against the Shi’a, thus playing up the image again of protector of Sunnis,” he said. “One might reasonably expect the next major IS ops to be called ‘revenge for our people in Baquba.’”
But besides the instigation of what many see as a new round of mayhem as the two communities target one another’s civilian populations, it also sends a message to Sunni tribes that might be considering opposing the current control over much of Sunni Iraq by the Islamic State: The government cannot protect you from us or from the Shiite death squads.
“I think it has a deterrent effect more than anything: You will be slaughtered if you leave our ‘protection,’” Tamimi said.
Already the response from the local tribes has indicated that Diyala, which is immediately northeast of Baghdad and has been bitterly contested since the fall of much of northern and central Iraq to the Islamic State in mid-June, is likely to see revenge massacres of Shiites in the coming days.
Entire families were killed in the mosque, said Sheikh Salman al Jabouri. He said 15 tribes announced their intent to battle the militias because of their outrage over the killings, indicating a deterioration of support for the government from a Sunni community already fearful of Shiite oppression.
“This is a violation against the mosque and the people who were doing their Friday prayers,” he said. It took place “under the watch of the (government) troops that were near the mosque.”
A military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the army would launch an investigation into the killings, which witnesses claimed took place within plain sight of a nearby army checkpoint.
Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry voiced outrage about the massacre and called for the government to prosecute the killers. Kamal Amin, the ministry’s spokesman, said the shootings were intended to “divide the country.”
“There is no justification for such an incident,” he said. “We don’t want any kind of reaction, which would be unacceptable.”
Adam Ashton of The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., in Baghdad and McClatchy special correspondent Adam Mehdi in Diyala contributed to this report.