The Iraqi military insisted the Sunni inmates were killed when the attackers shelled the facility outside the city of Baqouba. Neither account could be independently confirmed, but a local morgue official said many of the detainees had bullet wounds to the head and chest.
The allegation of Shi’ite killings of Sunnis was the first hint of the beginnings of a return to sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007. Sunni militants also have been accused of atrocities — an apparent attempt to provoke Shi’ite militias into revenge attacks that would strengthen the hand of an al-Qaeda splinter group within Iraq’s Sunni community.
A UN commission warned “a regional war in the Middle East draws ever closer” as Sunni insurgents advance across Iraq to control areas bridging the Iraq-Syria frontier. It said Iraq’s turmoil will have “violent repercussions” in Syria, most dangerously the rise of sectarian violence as “a direct consequence of the dominance of extremist groups”.
During the United States’ eight-year presence in Iraq, American forces acted as a buffer between the two Islamic sects, though with limited success. The US military withdrew at the end of 2011, but it is now being pulled back in — albeit so far in far fewer numbers.
The fighting around the jail was the closest to Baghdad since the al-Qaeda breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, began its lightning advance, seizing several key northern cities in the Sunni heartland last week.
There were conflicting details about the clashes in the al-Kattoun district near Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province and one of the bloodiest battlefields of the US-led war, and on how the detainees were killed.
Officers said the local police station, which has a small jail, came under attack on Monday night by Sunni militants who arrived in two sedan cars to free the detainees. The militants fired rocket-propelled grenades before opening fire with assault rifles.
A SWAT team accompanied by Shi’ite militiamen rushed to the scene and asked the local policemen to leave, according to the officers. When the policemen later returned to the station, they found all those in the detention cells dead.
The bodies were taken to the Baqouba morgue, where an official said most had gunshot wounds to the head and chest. One detainee, however, survived and was taken to the hospital. Police later arrived at the hospital and took the wounded man away, said a hospital official.
A different account was provided by Iraq’s chief military spokesman, Lt Gen Qassim al-Moussawi. He said 52 detainees who were held at the station in al-Kattoun died when the attackers from the Islamic State shelled it with mortars.
Nine of the attackers were killed, al-Moussawi said.
The Islamic State is known to be active in Diyala, a volatile province with a mix of Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds and where Shi’ite militiamen are deployed alongside government forces. Sunni militants have for years targeted security forces and Shiite civilians in the province, which abuts the Iranian border.
The Islamic State has vowed to march to Baghdad, and the Shi’ite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq’s stability since US troops left. The three cities are home to some of the most revered Shi’ite shrines. The Islamic State has also tried to capture the city of Samarra north of Baghdad, home to another major Shiite shrine.
Nearly 300 armed American forces are being positioned in and around Iraq to help secure US assets as President Barack Obama nears a decision on an array of options for combating the Islamic militants, including air strikes or a contingent of special forces.
The White House has continued to emphasise that any military engagement remained contingent on the government in Baghdad making political reforms.
The US and Iran, Iraq’s Shi’ite neighbour and close ally, also held an initial discussion on how the longtime foes might co-operate to ease the threat from the al-Qaeda-linked militants that have swept through Iraq. Still, the White House ruled out the possibility that Washington and Tehran might coordinate military operations in Iraq.