The latest massacre in Iraq is just one more on an already long list of sectarian atrocities in the country, writes Salah Nasrawi It took place on a warm and breezy spring day last week in a little town that provides beautiful views of two small rivers and surrounding citrus orchards and palm groves. The Sunni rebels who knew that the government forces were coming stood among lines of mud huts and concrete block houses ready to fight.
Buhriz, a rebel Sunni-dominated town in the mixed Diyalah province, was reportedly controlled by terrorists from the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) two days before the Iraqi army was due to try to take it back.
Hours before Iraq’s SWAT troops stormed Buhriz, the fragrance of orange flowers, which usually fills the air at this time of the year, was mixed with gunpowder smoke from the artillery shells fired by the Iraqi army.
When Buhriz eventually fell to the army on 23 March, a convoy of armed men in civilian clothes weaved its way behind the assaulting troops through the deserted streets right to the town centre.
What happened next in the troubled Sunni-dominated town remains unclear, but according to eyewitnesses suspected Shia militants raided Buhriz for hours without any intervention from the army.
The gunmen reportedly rounded up a group of men and shot them before hanging some of the bodies from electricity poles.
Among those who were killed were teenagers and elderly men, the eyewitnesses were quoted as saying, also telling Iraqi Sunni-controlled television networks that the gunmen had set fire to Sunni mosques, shops and houses.
Thousands of residents fled Buhriz to other Sunni-dominated towns in Diyalah. Other witnesses described how the attackers had arrived in trucks and on motorcycles under the eyes of the soldiers.
Iraq’s Al-Sharqiya television, which usually reflects Sunni views, said 27 people had been summarily executed in the massacre by what it described as militia members who had accompanied the army.
The television channel quoted Abdullah Al-Hayyali, the governor of Baquba, the provincial capital, as saying that at least five persons had been executed in the Nissan quarter of Buhriz while members of their families were watching.
The Qatari Al-Jazeera satellite channel also showed footage of bodies which it said belonged to men slain in Buhriz.
Though details remain sketchy, the finger of blame has been pointed at Shia militias. The main Sunni bloc Mutahdoon accused what it termed as sectarian "militias" of attacking Buhriz but stopped short of naming any specific group.
It said the attack had been part of a plan to change the demographic profile of Diyalah, a reference to the sectarian cleansing of Sunnis from the province which has a diverse population of Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, ethnic Kurds and Turkoumans.
Mutahdoon, which is headed by the Sunni speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi, also demanded an investigation into the atrocities.
Surprisingly, the government did not issue an official comment on the events in Buhriz, but a statement by the Interior Ministry a week later categorically denied the allegations of atrocities.
The ministry, which is responsible for the security forces, accused "some media outlets" and politicians of fabricating the allegations for "sectarian reasons." It said the security forces had intervened in Buhriz only after a terrorist group had killed two policemen and a woman in the town.
However, Ali Ghaidan, commander of the land forces that are operating under the command of the Ministry of Defence, gave a slightly different version of the events in Buhriz.
He told an Iraqi television station that locals had joined some twenty ISIL fighters in a fight to take control of the town. "The defeat of the armed men in Buhriz sent a strong message to the terrorists never to think again of reaching Buhriz," Ghaidan said.
Violence in Buhriz is nothing new, since this is a town, with its tribal and farming community, that has been a haven for the Sunni insurgents who have been fighting the Shia-led government for years.
During the US occupation of Iraq, Buhriz became a flashpoint where US soldiers and Sunni rebels embittered by the US-led invasion of Iraq regularly fought fierce battles.
The small agricultural town, about 30 miles northwest of Baghdad, acquired the nickname of "Little Fallujah" after it became a symbol of Sunni resistance to both the Americans and the Shia-led government.
In 2006, American forces killed Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian founder and leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, in a village just north of Buhriz. Like many other towns in Diyalah, Buhriz has remained a stronghold for the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group the ISIL and other Sunni insurgents.
A cycle of violence, distrust and extremism has festered since the US troop withdrawal in 2011, and Sunnis who are complaining of marginalisation and exclusion have organised an anti-government rebellion in the area.
The violence has escalated since early January, when Sunni insurgents seized large parts of the area after government forces had dismantled a Sunni Muslim protest camp in the city of Ramadi.
Sunni rebels also stepped up their attacks against the military, police forces and pro-government tribes in other Sunni-populated provinces, such as Nineveh and Salah Al-Din.
The attacks and clashes in some of Baghdad’s outskirts have raised fears of a Sunni attempt to create a territorially controlled zone to encircle the capital and increase pressure on the government.
Buhriz seemed to be a key link among this ring of towns around Baghdad, since it needed to be under rebel control to create the zone.
According to some accounts, the ISIL fighters controlled the town for a full two full days before it was taken back by the army.
Different accounts suggested that security forces wearing ISIL-style black uniforms and checkered headdresses had entered the town to give the impression that Buhriz was being taken over by terrorists.
However, the army’s onslaught seemed to be part of an effort to deny the Sunni rebels the territories to consolidate their power in areas where they can dominate.
The participation of the Shia militia, if confirmed, would be a major development in the ongoing sectarian conflict in Iraq and could usher in the collapse of the state’s security apparatus.
While Sunnis have been complaining about Shia hegemony in the army and police force, the direct participation of Shia militias in the fight against Sunni insurgents would be tantamount to a fully-fledged civil war.
Shia militias have reportedly begun to remobilise in recent months, including the Badr Organisation, Kataib Hizbullah, the Mahdi Army and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. Reports abound about militiamen carrying out targeted or extrajudicial killings.
On the other hand, many Sunnis are questioning the terrorist tactics used by the ultra-violent ISIL, such as execution-style killings and indiscriminate killings and mass murders, which they consider as provocative to the Shia.
On 20 January, ISIL members killed four members of the SWAT near Ramadi. A video posted online showed ISIS members firing on four SWAT fighters in an execution-style killing.
SWAT, or Special Weapons And Tactics, are Iraq’s special forces, which are tasked with fighting terrorism. Iraqi Sunnis accuse the forces of brutality, including the use of excessive force and the destruction of property.
These atrocities raise fears of tit-for-tat sectarian killings, and the massacre in Buhriz could offer a snapshot of what is now going on in Iraq.
Many Iraqis believe that the killings in Buhriz could be retaliation for the execution of SWAT soldiers by the ISIL.
The truth about the Buhriz massacre is not known for the time being, and like many horrific events of the war in Iraq it may be buried with the bones of its victims.
However, years of bitter sectarian fighting is now deepening the divide between the two branches of Islam in Iraq, as Sunni and Shia politicians wage campaigns against each other to drum up hostile sentiments.
"The militias, which are Iran’s agents, wouldn’t have dared to kill civilians without a license from Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki," wrote former Sunni vice-president Tariq Al-Hashemi on his Facebook page following the Buhriz events.
"When seven Shias get killed, I want seven Sunnis to get killed, too," Shia lawmaker Hanan Al-Fatlawi told the Al-Sumeria television station last week.