Continued slaughter in Iraq fans fears of sectarian violence

| Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 8:45 p.m.

BAGHDAD — Iraq's capital lurched closer to a renewed cycle of sectarian slaughter on Tuesday when the bodies of a Sunni cleric and his aides, allegedly kidnapped by Shiite militiamen, were found on Monday in a Baghdad morgue, and dozens of inmates were killed in a prison as insurgents battled security forces.

The Muslim Scholars Association said Imam Nihad al-Jibouri and two of his aides were executed when they were abducted by men dressed as security forces. The slayings are reminiscent of the tit-for-tat violence of the worst days of Iraq's 2005-07 civil war.

The Sunni group warned of retaliation.

Meanwhile, a car bomb in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City district killed 12 people and wounded 30 in a crowded outdoor market, police and hospital officials said. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, but attacks targeting Shiite districts typically are the work of Sunni militants.

Baghdad has remained relatively calm amid a rampage in the north by al-Qaida-inspired militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But with thousands of Shiite volunteers answering a call to arms from religious leaders and the Shiite-led government, many Sunnis in the capital and elsewhere fear reprisal attacks.

“There is a real risk of further sectarian violence on a massive scale,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned as he urged Iraqi political and religious leaders to avoid incitement.

The United States is pushing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, widely accused of failing to prevent the crisis, to bridge the sectarian divide. It has made clear that military support from the United States is contingent on Iraq's government undertaking political reforms.

“There is no outside country — not the United States, not any country — that can solve the challenges that the people of Iraq are facing. It needs to be the government that takes steps,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Meanwhile, sectarian violence is on the rise.

Jibouri and his assistants had been abducted from the religiously mixed neighborhood of Saidiyah four days before their bodies turned up in the morgue, the Muslim Scholars Association said.

The group, a Sunni religious organization that the U.S. military long suspected of involvement in the insurgency against American troops, said in a statement that “these crimes won't go unpunished.”

“The day will come when we punish all the criminals and those who stand behind them,” it said.

Saidiyah was a flash point for sectarian killings during the civil war, when Sunni and Shiite death squads roamed the streets, filling morgues.

Reports of mass killings have been emerging from battlefields across the country as government forces attempt to recover from their humiliating rout a week ago, Shiite militias join the fray and ISIS militants keep trying to seize territory.

In Baqouba, capital of the religiously mixed Diyala province, 52 prisoners were killed as government troops battled to hold off an ISIS assault, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, a spokesman for Iraq's military, told the National Iraqi News Agency.

Other reports put the death toll at 44. There were conflicting reports on how the men died, with some saying security forces killed the inmates. Twitter accounts affiliated with ISIS said the men were executed at the hands of the police.

In Baghdad, a spokesman for the security forces, Saad Maan, said security forces had “pre-emptively” killed 65 unspecified “terrorists,” but he did not provide details.

According to Atta's account, the men were killed by ISIS extremists as they attempted to storm the prison. Nine ISIS members also were killed in the attack, he said.

Hamid al-Mutlaq, a member of a bloc of secular parties led by Ayad Allawi, said that the killings occurred when ISIS attempted a prison break, but security forces executed the prisoners once they repelled the militants' attack.

As the United States weighs its options for action, it has taken the unusual step of having its diplomats engage with their counterparts from Iran to discuss possible cooperation to stop ISIS' march. But the White House has ruled out military cooperation with Tehran.

As Washington and Tehran are drawn in, a U.N. human rights panel warned that the Middle East is on the “cusp of a regional war,” with militants from Syria fueling the insurgency in Iraq. In a report, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said regional war was moving “ever closer.”

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