Sunni politicians and tribal chiefs in Diyala, an eastern province in Iraq, have accused Shia fighters of killing at least 70 unarmed civilians who had fled clashes with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The accusations followed a three-day offensive in which Iraqi security forces and allied Shia militias captured two dozen villages from ISIL fighters in Diyala.
Sunni tribal leaders say mass graves have been found and that people were brutally killed in what could be considered a war crime.
"This evening the militias entered the village of Barwanah and executed more than 70 residents," said Nahida al-Daini, an parliamentarian from nearby Baquba. "This is a real massacre by the militias," Daini told Reuters.
Sagar al-Jabouri and Ahmed Ibrahim, Sunni sheikhs from Muqdadiya, confirmed the reports.
"The militias are acting above the law. The security forces are unable to restrain them," Jabouri said. "We will defend ourselves. We are afraid we will be next.
Amir Salman, Diyala's governor, called on Baghdad to intervene in Barwanah, 3 miles northwest of Muqdadiya where pro-government fighters and some security forces took control of about two dozen villages earlier on Monday.
But Brigadier-General Saad Maan, Interior Ministry spokesman, denied the claims, saying ISIL was trying to undermine the reputation of Iraqi security forces.
Local Shias said the deaths likely came at the hands of ISIL. "Daesh terrorists might have killed those people because they refused to fight with them," said Amal Omran, a Shia member of the Diyala provincial council, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.
The military offensive in Diyala, which began on Friday, enabled Shia fighters, the Iraqi army and Sunni tribesmen to push ISIL out of the Muqdadiya area, their closest outpost to the Iranian border about 30 miles to the east.
Hadi al-Amri, head of the Shia paramilitary group Badr Organization, said on state TV that at least 58 soldiers and pro-government fighters had been killed in the Muqdadiya offensive and another 247 others wounded.
Iraq's Shia-led government, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, has been trying to push back ISIL since it swept through northern Iraq in June. It has had to rely heavily on Shia militias, since Iraq’s own security forces are underpowered and have suffered from poor morale.
But there have long been concerns that these militias are motivated by sectarian resentments and that they could serve to exacerbate Iraq’s sectarian divides — the very divisions the Sunnis of ISIL have exploited in their takeover of much of western and northern Iraq.
Al Jazeera and wire services