BAGHDAD (AP) — Human Rights Watch on Saturday urged Iraqi authorities to give more financial and political backing to a government panel probing a deadly raid by security forces at a protest camp last week to find out who is responsible for what it alleged was an unlawful use of lethal force.
The group said it received photos from a separate, parliamentary investigation taken in the aftermath of the attack that show the bodies of several men lying in the protest area amid burning cars. Some have their hands bound and "appear — because of the way the bodies are positioned — to have been executed with gunshots," the group said.
The April 23 crackdown on Sunnis in Hawija who were protesting against the Shiite-led Iraqi government unleashed a backlash of deadly attacks by Sunnis and battles between gunmen and security forces that have claimed more than 250 lives. The unrest poses the most serious threat to Iraq's stability since the last American troops left in December 2011, and raises fears of a new phase of widespread sectarian fighting.
Before the Hawija crackdown, local and tribal officials had been trying to negotiate a peaceful end to a standoff between protesters and security forces.
According to a Defense Ministry account, authorities wanted to enter the camp to hunt for weapons and make arrests related to an earlier incident in which a nearby checkpoint came under attack. The ministry says the Iraqi forces opened fire only after they were attacked.
The ministry reported that 23 people, including three members of the security forces, were killed in the clashes that ensued. It said "only insurgents and extremists remained" in the camp before it moved in, and that some of the dead included militants with ties to al-Qaida and ex-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party.
Hours after the raid, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the creation of a ministerial committee to investigate the incident. A parliamentary committee also is probing what happened at Hawija.
The parliamentary committee report appears to dispute the Defense Ministry's justification, saying that the main point of disagreement was the removal of protesters' tents, not the handover of people or weapons. It said protesters had agreed to allow security forces to search the site as long as a government minister and other officials were present.
"The aim of this operation was to end the protest and remove the tents," the parliamentary committee's report states.
A preliminary copy of the report was obtained by Human Rights Watch and independently by The Associated Press.
It found that 44 civilians were killed, along with one soldier. They were all killed by gunshots and ranged in age from 13 to 55 years old, according to the report.
Seven of those killed were shot from behind, and five victims had bruises or other injuries in addition to the gunshot wounds, the report states.
The committee's casualty figures are similar to ones provided by Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who leads the separate ministerial committee that is also investigating the Hawija incident. His office said 46 people not on the side of security forces, including minors, were killed.
Al-Mutlaq's committee based its findings primarily on interviews with government officials and on photographs from the scene. He acknowledged difficulties in speaking to witnesses among the protesters because they are afraid to participate in the process.
"The problem is that we are only listening to one side," al-Mutlaq said in an interview with the AP on Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch contends al-Mutlaq's committee needs greater financial and political support. It said that the ministerial committee's failure to interview witnesses or participants in the crackdown raises serious doubts about the government's intention to hold those involved responsible.
Al-Mutlaq said he believes security forces used excessive force at Hawija. Western diplomats in Baghdad have also cited concerns about the large number of people killed among the protesters and the thoroughness of the ministerial investigation into the incident.
Al-Mutlaq has in the past clashed with al-Maliki, whose Shiite-led administration has been the target of more than four months of anti-government demonstrations led by the country's Sunni Arab minority. But unlike several other senior Sunnis, he continues to serve in the government, and he was chosen by al-Maliki to lead the probe into the Hawija incident.
The parliamentary committee inquiry, meanwhile, is based in part on interviews with witnesses who were at the protest. It did not talk to soldiers who were at the scene because it claims it was prevented from doing so by their superior officers, according to Human Rights Watch.
The parliamentary committee report "indicates that senior officials gave orders for army, federal police, and SWAT forces, all of which fall under Maliki's military office, to invade the demonstration site, remove demonstrators and level tents," Human Rights Watch said. However, the group noted that it is unclear what orders senior officials issued concerning the use of force.
Al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi, denied that any orders were given to fire on protesters.
"There is no need to ask who issued the orders, because those orders did not exist in the first place," he said. As evidence, he said security forces nearest the protesters were armed only with water cannons and batons.
Shiite lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili said the parliamentary committee originally included both Sunni and Shiite lawmakers, but the Shiites withdrew because they felt the members were jumping to conclusions prematurely and laying blame only on the government. He predicted that the sectarian makeup of the panel now would likely overshadow its findings.
Salim al-Jubouri, a lawmaker on the parliamentary committee, urged officials to do whatever is necessary to prevent the unrest in Iraq from deteriorating further.
"The Hawija scenario should not be repeated by any means. This would have disastrous consequences that nobody can contain," he said.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Mohannad al-Saleh contributed reporting.
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