11/03/2014 10:02 am ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

Watch: Survivors Describe Mosque Massacre in Iraq

Militias, Local Police Killed 34 at Friday prayer

(Erbil) – Victims of a massacre in a mosque in Diyala province by Iraqi pro-government militias and security forces recognized the attackers and knew them by name. The Iraqi government should promptly make public any investigation of the attack on the Musab Bin Omair mosque on August 22, 2014, which killed 34 people, and bring those responsible to justice.

According to accounts by five witnesses, including one survivor of the attack, armed men, some wearing civilian clothes and others in police uniforms, attacked the mosque at midday in the village of Imam Weiss in Hamreen, Diyala province, about 50 kilometers northeast of Baaquba, the provincial capital. The attackers shot to death 32 men, one woman, and one 17-year-old boy, all of whom witnesses said were civilians who were attending Friday prayer when they were killed, with PK-type and AK-47 Russian-made automatic weapons, the witnesses said. All of the witnesses said they recognized the attackers and knew them by name.

“Pro-government militias are becoming emboldened and their crimes more shocking,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Iraqi authorities and Iraq’s allies alike have ignored this horrific attack and then they wonder why the militant group Islamic State has had such appeal among Sunni communities.”

Witnesses, all of whom asked Human Rights Watch not to reveal their identities for their protection, said the shooting began at about 12:10 p.m., during the imam’s Friday speech. A survivor, who was inside the Sunni mosque, said he saw a man enter wearing the dark green T-shirt, pants, and headband typically worn by militiamen affiliated with Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, a pro-government militia. He was carrying a PK-type automatic weapon.

“He shouted, ‘Do not move. No one leave!’” the witness said. “He aimed his first shot at the sheikh [imam], and then he continued shooting at the rest of us. When I heard the first gunshot I dropped to the ground.”

The gunman continued shooting at random, the witness said. ”People were on the ground screaming and crying, saying, “Allahu akbar [God is great], La ilaha illa Allah [there is no God but God].”

Three of the witnesses entered the mosque after this first attack. They said they saw eight armed men leaving the mosque. When they entered, they saw about 10 people who appeared to be already dead and about 30 more injured. “What I saw was indescribable, inhuman,” one said. “Most of the people were injured, not dead, and were crying out for water and for help with their injuries. I saw a man whose left side of his head was completely blown off.”

Two witnesses said they had begun carrying the wounded into the garden in front of the mosque when, after about 10 minutes, they heard more shooting as a second group of between 20 and 30 armed men headed toward the mosque. The witnesses fled, leaving the wounded behind. Another witness who was watching from his house about 100 meters away confirmed this account.

All of the witnesses said they then heard screams and more gunshots. The second round of shooting lasted approximately 15 minutes, they said.

The witnesses told Human Rights Watch that all of the 34 dead except one were from the Beni Weiss, a Sunni tribe in Diyala. None of the witnesses knew the reason for the attack, but one said he believed it was in retaliation for an attack with an improvised explosive device earlier that day about 20 kilometers north of Imam Weiss that killed five militiamen. The witnesses all said there were no fighters in or around Imam Weiss at the time of the attack.

The witnesses said there was an army checkpoint about 200 meters from the mosque and a police checkpoint about 150 meters from the mosque, but that no security forces responded to the attack even though the shooting was broadcast over the mosque loudspeaker and could be heard from at least 600 meters away, where one witness heard the shooting from his home.

Two witnesses said they called for army assistance and for an ambulance, but none arrived until nearly an hour later. At about 1:30 p.m., they said, soldiers from the 5th brigade of the army’s 20th division arrived in an army ambulance and a cargo truck, which carried the dead to the hospital morgue in Muqdadiyya, 15 kilometers away.

The survivor said that he was among a half dozen people who survived the shootings. He said his cousin sought treatment at the local hospital but left after doctors warned him that militiamen were heading to the hospital to kill survivors seeking treatment there. Human Rights Watch reviewed the cousin’s medical records, dated August 22, which indicated that he required an operation and plastic surgery due to a bullet wound in his right arm that crushed the bone and created an abscess.

The witnesses and three other residents said that sectarian tensions in the town had escalated after fighters of the militant group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) took over the city of Mosul on June 10. While the largely Shia militias were already there, working with the security forces, after June 10, militias took control of the police and army, witnesses and residents said. Imam Weiss has a population of about 500 families, 300 of them Sunni and 200 Shia, the residents said.

On October 22, in response to Human Rights Watch’s request for information about the attack, Interior Ministry Spokesman General Saad Maan Ibrahim told Human Rights Watch that the Interior Ministry had formed an “investigation commission” to look at the attack, which determined three suspects had carried out the killings. Maan did not know whether the judiciary had set a date for their hearings.

Maan said the killings were in response to an IED explosion that killed a number of volunteer fighters driving into Imam Weiss early morning on August 22. “We heard that some of their relatives, two or three, went to that mosque carrying AKs and opened fired on the mosque, killing them all, which was a normal, spontaneous reaction of revenge,” Maan said. “It was a revenge operation for what they lost.” None of the relatives of the victims knew whom the investigative committee had held responsible for the crime, the charges against them or whether there would be a public trial.

The August 22 attack is consistent with a pattern of attacks that Human Rights Watch has documented, including kidnappings and summary executions, by Shia militias Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, the Badr Brigades, and Kita’ib Hezbollah in Baghdad, Diyala and Babel provinces.

Foreign governments should stop providing Iraq with military support and assistance until the government ensures that such widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity have ended, including ensuring those responsible for such crimes are held accountable, Human Rights Watch said.

The United States has sent Iraq military aid and in August began air strikes against ISIS targets. Militias have taken over at least some of the areas where the US has carried out air strikes, according to accounts from area residents.

In September, a Human Rights Watch researcher saw a convoy of 10 to 12 cars filled with militiamen carrying heavy weapons and new-model M-16s in Baghdad. The militiamen pointed their weapons at traffic to force other cars to the side to let them pass, and drove through a federal police checkpoint without being stopped.

“Iraq’s international allies cannot allow the fight against the abusive extremists of ISIS to be carte blanche for the Iraqi government's allies to callously kill civilians who happen to be Sunnis,” Stork said.