BAGHDAD — Hatem Abu Hazal lives between two frightening forces in northeast Iraq. On one side, he fears Sunni militants from the Islamic State who have been trying to seize territory near his home in Diyala province for months.
On the other, Hazal is just as troubled by the Iraqi government’s response to the extremists: sanctioning intimidating Shiite militias whose presence in his town corresponded with a noticeable increase in kidnappings for ransom.
“It’s a disaster,” said Hazal, a Sunni Muslim in the Shiite majority city of Muqdadiyah. “They’re all rubbish.”
That “disaster” came into sharp relief Friday when gunmen attacked a Sunni mosque, killing more than 70 worshippers. It remained unclear whether the attack in the village of Imam Wais was carried out by Shiite militiamen or insurgents from the Islamic State group who have been advancing into mixed Sunni-Shiite areas in Diyala and have been known to kill fellow Sunni Muslims who refuse to submit to their harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
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The destruction continued Saturday, as bombings in Baghdad and the northern city of Kirkuk killed at least 42 people as the government investigated the mosque attack.
In oil-rich Kirkuk, long disputed by Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government, three bombs went off in a crowded commercial district, killing 31 people and wounding dozens, Kirkuk deputy police chief Tarhan Abdel-Rahman said.
In Baghdad, a suicide bomber had earlier driven an explosives-laden car into the gate of the intelligence headquarters in Karrada district, killing six civilians and five security personnel, a police officer said. He said 24 other people were wounded. A medical official confirmed causality figures. Both spoke on condition of anonymity.
Such attacks threaten to undermine any progress that might be made to resolve disagreements between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. Iraq’s Sunni political blocs have already withdrawn from talks about forming a new government, calling the Friday massacre a “natural result” of the military’s decision to allow unaccountable militias to operate alongside official forces.
Members of Iraq’s Sunni minority long have complained that the country’s security forces unfairly targeted them, but their fears have heightened since Iraq’s most-revered Shiite cleric in June called men to arms to defend their country against the Islamic State militants sweeping toward Baghdad.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call came at a moment of crisis, with the country shocked by the Islamic State’s victories across Iraq and the collapse of three Iraqi army divisions.
His call motivated more than 40,000 men to join Iraq’s official government security forces, according to the Ministry of Defense. Untold thousands more are operating alongside the army and police in well-armed militias, the same ones that targeted U.S. forces during the American occupation of Iraq with deadly precision.
The militias’ record for taking on well-armored U.S. troops is one of their selling points to Iraqi Shiites seeking a force to protect them from the Islamic State’s brutality.
“Because of our experience fighting the Americans, we were at a high level,” said Naim al-Abboudi, a member of the Iranian-supported Asa’ib Ahl al Haq militia since 2006 who is now its spokesman.
Ground troops in the Iraqi army had never been tested so severely, al-Abboudi said.
“The Iraqi army can’t fight Daash,” he said, using a pejorative Arabic name for the Islamic State. The army doesn’t “have experience fighting such groups.”
Now Iranian-backed Shiite militias such his Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, Kaitaib Hezbollah and the Badr Brigade are practically interwoven with Iraq’s security forces. They staff checkpoints, patrol neighborhoods and take on offensive operations against the extremists.
They’re considered legitimate forces since al-Sistani sanctioned them, so much so that Badr Brigade leader Hadi al-Amiri wore a military uniform when he joined departing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at a news conference this month. Al-Amiri is leading the Badr Brigade against the Islamic State in Diyala province, a region he considers home.
The official line from the government and from the militias is that they report directly to senior Iraqi officers in the field, collaborating on shared operations. But, in some cases, Western officials believe the militias operate as “parallel organizations” on the battlefield with distinct hierarchies separate from the military chain of command.
“These militias are ultimately unaccountable and therefore difficult to control,” said John Drake, an Iraq specialist at Britain-based AKE Intelligence. “It doesn’t matter if rogue militiamen or entire militia organizations are engaging in harassment of the Sunni community, their presence alone raises the risk of such activity taking place.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.