NEW DELHI: In the fight against the Islamic State, the US has many allies. In addition to the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia and several other countries, Shia militias on the ground make up this broad-based alliance.

Whilst the Islamic State has grabbed headlines as a Sunni extremist group, Sunni civilians have suffered at the hands of these Shia militias that operate in ways similar to the ruthlessness of the Islamic State. Reports have emerged of civilians -- who are labelled “IS sympathisers” because of their sectarian identity -- being arbitrarily arrested and executed without trial, their dead bodies hung from power lines to instill fear in the local community.

These Shia militias are backed by the Iraqi state, where a dismissal of former Prime Minister Nouri-al-Maliki has done little ease sectarian tensions.

A new report by Amnesty International (AI) titled “Absolute Impunity: Military Rule In Iraq” details this reality. It concludes that in “ recent months, Shi’a militias have been abducting and killing Sunni civilian men in Baghdad and around the country. These militias, often armed and backed by the government of Iraq, continue to operate with varying degrees of cooperation from government forces –ranging from tacit consent to coordinated, or even joint, operations.”

The report goes on to say that it holds the Iraqi government “responsible for the serious human rights abuses, including war crimes, committed by these militias.” The report details the plight of victims, found dead or still missing, using accounts by family members and witnesses. These accounts are corroborated by Ministry of Health workers, who told Amnesty International that in recent months they have received scores of bodies of unidentified men with gunshot wounds to the head and often with their hands bound together with metal or plastic handcuffs, rope or cloth.

Such crimes are being perpetrated against a background of increased sectarian tensions in the country. Since Iraqi central government forces lost control of much of northern Iraq to the Sunni Islamist armed group which calls itself “the Islamic State” (IS) last June, sectarian attacks have spiraled to a level not seen since 2006-2007, the worst period of civil strife in the country’s recent history. Government-backed Shi’a militias and Sunni armed opposition groups have both been targeting civilians from each other’s communities.

“Shi’a militias, for their part, have been taking advantage of the atmosphere of lawlessness and impunity to abduct and kill Sunni men, seemingly in reprisal or revenge for IS attacks and at times also to extort money from the families of those they have abducted. With government forces unable or unwilling to ensure the security and protection of the civilian population, militias have been operating with unprecedented freedom and have been able to perpetrate such crimes with impunity,” the report states.

The report is based on six weeks of research in central and northern Iraq, including the areas under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Excerpts from the report, detailing the story of some victims (names changed) are reproduced below:

Two cousins, Majed, a 31-year-old Ministry of Education employee and father of three young children, and Nayef, a 30-year-old engineer, were abducted at about 3.15pm on 30 May by men in military uniform in a military vehicle near a military camp in al-Taji area, some 30 km north of Baghdad. On the evening of 2 June, the families delivered the agreed ransom for their release, the equivalent of about US$90,000,3 but the two men were not released. Their bodies were found the following day in al-Shu’la, a predominantly Shi’a area northwest of Baghdad. They had both been shot in the head and their hands were cuffed behind their backs with metal handcuffs.

A relative of the two cousins said:

“That day (30 May) I went with Nayef and a friend to Tikrit to bring the family furniture. On the way down to Baghdad we were stopped at a military checkpoint between Djeil and al-Taji (some 40 km north of Baghdad). They asked for a permit for the truck. Nayef and our friend stayed at the checkpoint with the truck and I came to Baghdad to try to get the permit. I got Majed to accompany me as he is well educated and knows how to handle such procedures. Even though it was a Friday we eventually managed to get the permit and then Majed accompanied me back to the checkpoint. There we gave the permit to the soldiers and were allowed to continue on to Baghdad. I drove the truck and Nayef and Majed were behind us in my car. When we got to Aqwas al-Taji we were stopped by some men in a military vehicle, a Hummer type of vehicle, near the al-Taji military base. It was about 3.15pm. They said Nayef and Majed had to stay behind to be checked and we were not allowed to stay and wait for them, so we drove on for 15 minutes and then I tried to call them but there was no answer and then the phones were switched off. We drove on, and when we got to the Baghdad entry checkpoint, I saw my car pass through the checkpoint and go on into Baghdad. Its number plate had been removed and it was being driven by two young guys; it was not stopped at the checkpoint, even though at that checkpoint all cars are usually stopped and papers checked. I left the truck there and took a taxi back to the place where I had left Majed and Nayef but found no one; the military vehicle which had stopped us had gone. It was 4.20pm.”

Majed’s mother’s account is as follows:

“At 8pm that evening I got a call from a man speaking from my son’s mobile asking for 20 dafatir (about US $180,000) for the release of Majed and Nayef. I told him I only have this boy and we have no money but he said ‘find the money and don’t go to the police or we’ll kill them’. They called several times over the next two days and eventually they lowered their demand to 10 dafatir. I had to borrow the money and so did Nayef’s family…. On the evening of 2 June they told me to take the money to the Mashat bridge. I waited there for an hour and then they called and again I asked to speak to my son and to Nayef. They called me back after 10 minutes and allowed me to speak to both of them; Majed sounded very tired. The kidnapper then told me to take a taxi to a place in al-Ghazaliyeh area and when I got there they called again and told me to take a taxi to another place, and then to another place. It was late, dark and there was no one around except me. A white car drove up and stopped near me and the men inside shouted ‘yalla, yalla, the money’. I asked where is my son and they said ‘they’ll come now, after us’. They took the money and drove off towards al-Shu’la. I waited for an hour but nobody came. The following day a relative called to say that their bodies had been found in al-Shu’la and taken to the morgue. Both had been shot in the head. He was my only son, now I have nothing to live for.”

Photographs taken by the police at the place where the bodies were found showed both Majed and Nayef, kneeling face down in tall grass with their hands bound behind their backs with metal hand-cuffs.

Salem, a 43-year-old businessman and father of nine from Baghdad, was abducted from his factory in al-Taji area, some 30 km north of Baghdad at 4.30pm on 15 July in the presence of some of his workers. The family paid a US$60,000 ransom but he was never released. Two weeks later, his family found his body in Baghdad’s morgue. His head had been smashed and his hands were bound together with metal handcuffs.

A family member said:

“Salem, a 43-year-old businessman and father of nine from Baghdad, was abducted from his factory in al-Taji area, some 30 km north of Baghdad at 4.30pm on 15 July in the presence of some of his workers. The family paid a US$60,000 ransom but he was never released. Two weeks later, his family found his body in Baghdad’s morgue. His head had been smashed and his hands were bound together with metal handcuffs. of his body in the police station in al-Shu’la [in the photograph, seen by Amnesty International, Salem is handcuffed and his head is mostly destroyed – either by a heavy object or a large calibre bullet]. His body had been taken to the morgue”.

Omar, a 22-year-old taxi driver, was taken from his bed by armed men in military uniforms on the morning of 6 June in front of his family. He was found dead nearby the following morning.

His mother said:

"The militias broke into our home as we were sleeping. My son woke up and said ‘what is happening?’ They grabbed him from his bed and took him outside where more armed men and three black Hummers (vehicles) were waiting. Before leaving they took all our mobile phones. Outside one of them pointed to our car and asked if it was ours and when I said yes he shot at it. I tried to follow them but they shot in my direction. They also took our neighbour's son. We looked for them everywhere until the following day when their bodies were found in a mosque nearby. My son had been shot twice in the head and once in the chest. As they were taking my son from the house the militiaman who took my mobile phone asked ‘what is his name?’ They didn’t even know my son’s name; maybe they just took him because they were looking for young men and he was the only young man in our house.”

The full report can be found here: shia