Iraqi security forces have executed more than 255 prisoners over the past month in apparent retaliation for atrocities committed by armed Sunni group Islamic State (IS) and to stop them from joining the rebellion, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The rights group said the killings of Sunni prisoners had taken place in six Iraqi towns and villages since June 9 and at least eight of the dead were under the age of 18. The vast majority of security forces are Shia; the prisoners were Sunni.
In further evidence of the bloody violence that has taken hold in the strife-torn country, gunmen killed some 29 people —20 of them women — Saturday in an apartment building in eastern Baghdad, official said.
Months of largely sectarian violence has seen Iraq edge towards full-blown civil war, with Sunni fighters taking large swathes of the country.
HRW said mass extrajudicial reprisal killings as evidenced in their report could amount to war crimes.
“Gunning down prisoners is an outrageous violation of international law,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “While the world rightly denounces the atrocious acts of [Islamic State] it should not turn a blind eye to sectarian killing sprees by government and pro-government forces.”
Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), is spearheading a patchwork of insurgents who hold territory grabbed in a lightning raid across the north and west of Iraq and have threatened to move on Baghdad.
The armed group members have made no attempt to hide mass executions of their prisoners. Days after they began sweeping through northern cities last month, they released videos showing their masked fighters machine-gunning captive government soldiers lying in shallow graves.
In a continuation of the violence on Saturday, Iraqi soldiers backed by Shia rebel groups fought Sunni rebels for control of a military base on the edge of Muqdadiya, 50 miles northeast of Baghdad. Heavy fighting raged for hours and was continuing in the afternoon, local security sources said.
Sources at the morgue and hospital in the nearby town of Baquba said they had received the bodies of 15 Shia fighters transferred after the morning's fighting. State TV also reported that 24 "terrorists" had been killed. Seven civilians including children from nearby villages were killed by helicopter gunship fire, police and medics said.
Elsewhere in Iraq, in the western city of Falluja, a hospital received three bodies and 18 wounded people on Saturday after army helicopters bombed the city, government health official Ahmed al-Shami said.
In Jalawla, Kurdish security forces attacked Islamic State positions late Friday night, killing at least 15 militants and three Kurdish security personnel, spokesman Halgurd Hikmat said. The town, in the eastern province of Diyala near the Iranian border, was seized by fighters last month.
Saturday also saw the grim find of 29 bodies in a east Baghdad apartment building.
"When we walked up the stairs, we saw a couple of women's bodies and blood streaming down the stairs. We entered a flat and found bodies everywhere, some lying on the sofa, some on the ground, and one woman who apparently had tried to hide in a cupboard in the kitchen shot to death there,” a police officer told Reuters.
Shia fighters have been accused by locals of carrying out killings of women branded as prostitutes in that district of the capital, though there was no way to immediately confirm who was responsible for the attack.
A U.N. envoy warned Saturday of further chaos if divided lawmakers do not make progress on Sunday towards naming a government. Most of Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds demand Maliki leave office, and Shia are divided, but he shows no sign of quitting.
Under a system created after the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the prime minister has always been a member of the Shia majority, the speaker of parliament a Sunni and, with one exception, the occupant of the largely ceremonial presidency has been a Kurd.
The current political deadlock raises fears that Iraq could splinter along ethnic and sectarian lines, a reality already playing out in parts of the country.
Al Jazeera and wire services