By Ned Parker and Stephen Kalin
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi lawmaker and paramilitary commander Hadi al-Amiri defended Shi'ite fighters at the forefront of the battle against Islamic State from accusations of mass executions and burning homes, and urged the United States to upgrade Iraq's military capabilities.
Amiri, one of Iraq's most powerful men, told Reuters in an interview over the weekend nobody from pro-government paramilitary groups had set foot in the village of Barwanah where the worst of the atrocities is alleged.
That clashed with accounts from Diyala's Sunni governor and provincial council members who described Shi'ite militia fighters and security forces executing at least 72 unarmed civilians last month in the eastern province.
Five witnesses Reuters interviewed on Jan. 28 also fingered the militias.
Amiri, who heads the Badr Organization, a political movement with an armed wing, is tasked with Diyala's security file, giving him control of army and police there in addition to the government-run Hashid Shaabi, or popular mobilization committee, which includes paramilitary groups and volunteers.
He has led the campaign against Islamic State in other parts of the country as well, answering directly to the prime minister.
"I did not put even one Hashid Shaabi in the Barwanah operations zone. They might be residents of the area but they are not Hashid Shaabi," he said, adding that he had given residents a month's notice ahead of operations.
"The element of surprise is a principle of warfare ... We renounced that in order to preserve civilian lives."
Amiri blamed unnamed Sunni politicians sympathetic to Sunni militants for slandering the Hashid Shaabi and called the reported killing in Barwanah "lies".
"These politicians are defending Daesh," Amiri told Reuters, using a pejorative term for Islamic State. "These people don't want Hashid Shaabi to liberate Iraq."
"It's a battlefield and if anyone from Barwanah was killed, give us their names. We are ready to investigate and will punish whoever is responsible."
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shi'ite Islamist who has sought reconciliation between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite communities, has opened his own inquiry into the accusations and sent his Sunni defense minister to Barwanah on Thursday.
Abadi and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, have also denounced looting and torching of homes in areas freed from Islamic State, which itself has blown up and booby-trapped the areas it once controlled.
Amiri insisted to Reuters that paramilitary fighters were not to blame, instead faulting residents of those same areas for seeking revenge against alleged Islamic State sympathizers.
"We suffer not from the Hashid Shaabi. We suffer from the reactions of the residents," he said.
"Security forces are busy with the battle. We can't hold down an area. We can't lock the people in. It's an open area. What can we do?"
WAVE OF POPULARITY
Amiri has previously been viewed with scepticism by many Shi'ite Iraqis because of the Badr Organization's history as an Iranian-trained group that fought Iraq during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
But despite that association and more recent accusations of brutality, his leadership in expelling jihadists from areas across central Iraq has positioned him as a hero to many Shi'ites.
"When people see a minister leave his post and take to the battlefield, this might create feelings of respect and admiration," said Amiri, who rushed to Diyala last June, despite then being minister of transport, to halt Islamic State's advance toward Baghdad.
"They said Amiri would stop at Diyala. I told them I wouldn't stop and I would continue until all of Iraq is liberated," he told Reuters at his compound in Baghdad's heavily secured Green Zone, which houses Iraq's main government buildings.
Amiri forecast the next battles would be in Salahuddin province and near Kirkuk, an oil-rich city 250 km (150 miles) north of Baghdad, where Islamic State has advanced against Kurdish forces in recent weeks.
He predicted pro-government forces could defeat Islamic State within months given the proper arms, but said the United States needed to speed up delivery of weapons and the repair of Iraq's U.S. Abrams tanks.
"We hear sweet talk but no action. The government is not receiving weapons. If they were available, the battle would not take more than a few months," he said.
U.S. deliveries of 36 F-16s have not reached Iraq due to lengthy training programs required for pilots, along with fears that the Iraqi government cannot secure the equipment and prevent it from falling into the hands of Islamic State.
A former U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated 30 to 40 percent of Iraq's Abrams tanks are in disrepair because the Iraqi military failed to maintain them.
(Additional reporting by Saif Hameed; Editing by Giles Elgood)