BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s parliament suspended its meeting on Tuesday amid protests by Sunni Muslim MPs over violence that targeted their community in eastern Iraq and left dozens killed in apparent retaliation for anti-Shi’ite bombings claimed by Islamic State.
Sunni lawmakers urged Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to disband and disarm the Shi’ite militias which they accuse of being behind the latest attacks in and around the town of Muqdadiya, 80 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of Baghdad.
Raad al-Dahlaki and Nahida al-Daini, two Sunni MPs from Diyala province where Muqdadiya is located, said 43 people had been killed over the past week and nine mosques fire bombed. Salah Muzahim, another MP, said the toll was over 40 dead.
The rise of the Islamist militant group Islamic State, which follows a Sunni jihadist ideology, has exacerbated a long-running sectarian conflict in Iraq, mostly between the Shi’ite majority and minority Sunnis.
A surge in such violence would represent a further challenge to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shi’ite Islamist who is trying to reconcile the Sunnis and win them over to push Islamic State out of the mainly Sunni-populated areas in the country’s north and west which it seized in 2014.
“These killings are hindering Abadi’s efforts to rebuild trust with the Sunnis which is essential to recover territory under ISIS control,” said Mona Alami, a Beirut-based analyst with the Atlantic Council think tank, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Abadi toured Muqdadiya on Tuesday, walking through the town surrounded by guards and security officials. He denounced the use of force by non-state actors, without specifically mentioning the militias.
“We consider any weapon outside this framework as a weapon (benefiting) the terrorist Daesh gangs”, he said, according to a statement from his office, referring to Islamic State.
Earlier on Tuesday Sunni politicians said they were boycotting two sessions of parliament, leading to its adjournment, in condemnation of the violence in Muqdadiya. “We demand the dissolution and disarmament of the (Shi’ite) militias,” said the statement read by MP Ahmed Masari.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry has not published a toll for Sunni casualties in Muqdadiya and neighbouring villages. The ministry’s spokesman was not available to provide details on the latest violence.
Badr Organization, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia which is dominant in Diyala, rejected the casualty figures quoted by the Sunni MPs.
“Yes, there are people killed but this number is exaggerated,” Mohammed Naji, an aide to Badr leader Hadi al-Amiri, told Reuters.
He described the attacks on Sunni mosques as violations by people who want to stir up sectarian tension in Diyala, which lies between Baghdad and the Iranian border and has a mixed population of Shi’ites and Sunnis.
At the height of Iraq’s civil war nearly a decade ago, such violence often unleashed revenge killings and counter attacks across the country.
Shi’ite militiamen deployed in Muqdadiya last week after two blasts killed 23 people near a coffee shop where they often meet. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks which they said had targeted Shi’ites.
The level of violence has receded but tension remains with the town still under the control of Shi’ite militiamen, Dahlaki and Daini said.
Badr Organisation has established itself as the ascendant militia in the region since rolling back Islamic State’s advance. Amiri last week expressed regret over the violence in Diyala and offered to rebuild the destroyed Sunni mosques there.
Iraqi officials declared victory over the insurgents in Diyala nearly a year ago, but the militants have remained active. Many Sunnis fled their homes in the province as Badr advanced and accused the militias of abuses, which they have denied or blamed on rogue members.
Shi’ite militias were left out of last month’s battle against Islamic State in the western city of Ramadi over fears they would aggravate tensions in the mostly Sunni area.
Abadi has touted the victory in the largest population centre retaken from the militants as vindication of his strategy to rely on U.S.-led air strikes and rebuild Iraq’s army, which collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s initial advance.
Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Saif Hameed and Stephen Kalin; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Dominic Evans