The Iraqi government said on Wednesday it was opening a probe into the killings of civilians that happened on Monday in the eastern village of Barwanah.
"The prime minister has ordered an urgent investigation and we are awaiting the results," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's spokesman Rafid Jaboori said. "I don't want to come to any conclusions now. When the results of this investigation come out, we will have a full picture."
Sunni politicians and tribal chiefs from Iraq's eastern Diyala province accused pro-government militias of killing more than 72 unarmed civilians who had fled clashes with Daesh.
The United Nations' top envoy in Iraq Nickolay Mladenov welcomed the announcement of an investigation.
"It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that all armed forces are under its control, that rule of law is respected and that civilians are protected in all areas of the country, including those areas recently liberated from [Daesh]," he said.
On Monday, Nahida al-Daini, an MP from nearby Baquba, called on Baghdad to intervene in Barwanah.
"This evening the militias entered the village of Barwanah and executed more than 70 residents. This is a real massacre by the militias," Daini said.
Iraqi security and government officials have disputed the accounts, with some saying radical jihadists from Daesh could have perpetrated the killings.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan denied the claims, saying Daesh was trying to undermine the reputation of Iraqi security forces.
Monday's massacre followed a three-day offensive in which pro-government militias and Iraqi security forces captured two dozen villages from Daesh near the town of Muqdadiya in Diyala.
Since September, hundreds of civilians have fled fighting in Sinsil and other nearby villages for Barwanah's relative safety.
Accounts by five survivors interviewed separately by Reuters provide a picture of executions and tell a same story: they were taken from their homes by men in uniform, heads down and linked together, then led in small groups to a field, made to kneel, and selected to be shot one by one.
Abu Omar, a businessman displaced from Sinsil, was at home in Barwanah on Monday at around 3:30 pm when about 10 Humvees arrived carrying a few dozen men.
Black and brown uniforms suggested some were affiliated with pro-government militias and government security forces; others appeared to be civilians.
They dragged residents, some as old as 70, from their homes, beating and cursing them with sectarian slurs, Abu Omar said in a phone interview.
He added that the fighters took the men's mobiles and ID cards, then bound their hands, tying Abu Omar to his 12-year-old mentally ill son with rope. They did the same with his two older sons and three brothers.
The men were led a few hundred yards to a field where Abu Omar said more than a hundred others had been gathered.
For about two hours, they were forced to kneel and stare at the ground as the fighters selected their targets and led them to a spot behind a mud wall.
"They took them behind the wall. Less than a minute, then a gunshot," Abu Omar said. "All we could hear was the gunshots. We couldn't see."
Survivors say victims were taken also to alleyways, houses, behind a mosque, or an area used to collect garbage, and then shot.
Abu Maz'el, 25, a farmer from Sinsil who was displaced to Barwanah five months ago, gave Reuters nearly identical testimony.
They took him and his cousin from their home to the field, walking single file, heads down, with their hands on the other men's shoulders.
Kneeling beside his 35-year-old cousin, Abu Maz'el heard others beg for their lives as the gunmen dragged them off and shot them.
"My cousin raised his head, so someone slapped him," he said. "Five minutes later, they came and took him away and executed him."
Falling like dominoes
Diyala has been plagued by sectarian violence with Daesh and pro-government militias fighting for control of the strategic region northeast of Baghdad.
Monday's massacre happened in the presence of Iraqi security forces, compounding doubts about Baghdad's control over the militias, which took the lead in battling Daesh after the Iraqi army nearly collapsed last summer.
Abdullah al-Jubouri, a 23-year-old college graduate who fled to Barwanah from Sinsil a month ago, said the army let him go when they came to his house on Monday. Other witnesses said that soldiers stood by helplessly, some crying, as the militias executed civilians.
Jubouri said he fled when he saw Humvees entering Barwanah and hid in a pile of garbage. He watched as a group of soldiers and militiamen near the school fired at a line of 13 men, some with their hands bound.
"I saw them falling like domino pieces," he explained.
Jubouri stressed he heard shots and screams until about 7:00 pm, when the vehicles left. He discovered a neighbor and his two sons among the bodies by the school.
Women and children emerged to cover the men's bodies. Some spent the night in the streets mourning the dead.
Jubouri said he found the body of another neighbor outside his house with bullet wounds to his head and chest. He saw bodies with similar wounds in the field and in five separate streets throughout the village.
Abu Omar, the businessman, returned home after the fighters withdrew, and was reunited with his sons. He later found six brothers also from Sinsil had been killed, one at his home and the others behind the mud wall in the field.
A cosmetics salesman and four teachers were killed in the field, along with three other brothers and their cousin, Abu Omar said.
Haqqi al-Jobouri, a member of the Diyala provincial council, announced 35 men were missing after the massacre and suspected of being detained by the militias.
Sajid al-Anbuki, another member of the same body, urged restraint in drawing conclusions ahead of the government's investigation.
"If it revealed that those men executed were terrorists, then we don't have any problem because in this case they got what they deserve," he said.
"If the findings prove they were civilians, then justice should be done and those who did it must be arrested."
In the meantime, remaining residents of Barwanah fear further violence. They said the same militias and security forces encircled the village late on Monday, preventing anyone from leaving.
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