BAGHDAD: Residents of a town north of Baghdad found 12 corpses with execution-style bullet wounds Monday, after fighting between rival Sunni insurgent groups that could eventually unravel the coalition that seized much of the north and west of the country
The incident points to an intensification of infighting between ISIS and other Sunni groups, such as supporters of former dictator Saddam Hussein, which rallied behind the Al-Qaeda offshoot last month because of shared hatred for the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad.
Police in Muqdadiya, a town 80 kilometers northeast of the capital, said residents from the nearby town of Saadiya found the corpses Monday after intense fighting overnight between ISIS and the Naqshbandi Army, a group led by Saddam allies.
Saadiya, a mostly Sunni town, was overrun by ISIS militants on June 10, the same day the city of Mosul fell to the insurgents. It is located in Diyala, a mainly rural province north of Baghdad where lush irrigated fields have long sheltered armed groups that resent the arrival of outsiders.
Residents say the town is a stronghold of Naqshbandi Army fighters who supported ISIS when it first swept into the area, but have since clashed with the group.
A doctor in the Baqouba morgue, where the corpses were taken, said the men all bore bullet wounds to the head and chest, though there was no sign of torture. He said they had been dead for no more than 24 hours.
The people who found the bodies said the men were Naqshbandi fighters in their 20s and 30s, and blamed ISIS for the execution-style killings. The Saadiya residents brought the corpses to police in Muqdadiya because the police in their town fled on June 10 when the insurgents swept in.
Local government official Ahmad al-Zarghosi, who also fled, told Reuters that he estimated 90 percent of the town had fled north. Zarghosi, speaking from the town of Khanaqin, said fighting had been raging for a week between Naqshbandi locals and ISIS militants.
Though locals said the Naqshbandi Army enjoys strong support in Saadiya, the Islamist militants are far better equipped. They have been seen with heavy weapons and vehicles including Humvees in towns they seized last month, equipment apparently taken from the army, which received billions of dollars worth of U.S. hardware in recent years.
A key ally in the ISIS-led offensive is the Naqshbandi Army, believed to be led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam’s former deputy and the only top member of his entourage still at large since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
An audio recording of Douri’s voice surfaced on a website loyal to Saddam’s ousted Baath Party Saturday with a message heaping praise on the Al-Qaeda offshoot, although apparently acknowledging divisions among insurgents. The recording’s authenticity could not be verified.
On the political front, the flagging government formation process seemed set to drag on.
An MP said a parliament session scheduled for Tuesday seemed likely to be postponed, which would further delay any progress toward forming a new government.
“The atmosphere points to postponement,” said Hussein al-Maliki, an MP from Maliki’s bloc. “The blocs are still not in agreement.”
Parliament has twice met to elect a speaker, a post that must be filled before the government formation process can move forward, but failed both times to do so.
Also, the head of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region was welcomed by Turkish leaders as Ankara closely watches moves for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan amid the chaos in its neighbor.
Massoud Barzani’s separate discussions with President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were described by officials as a show of a support by Ankara for the Iraqi Kurdish authorities in their standoff with the government in Baghdad.
Barzani said Iraq’s Kurds would hold an independence referendum within months, adding that the time was right for a vote, as Iraq was already effectively divided by the ISIS campaign.
Turkey, which has its own sizeable Kurdish minority, has said it is committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq and officially remains opposed to the notion of Kurdish independence. But analysts say it is now far less hostile to the notion of an Iraqi Kurdistan than when Erdogan’s AK Party came to power over a decade ago.