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Iraq's PM pledges increased security following murder of Sunnis in Salahuddin

No group has claimed responsibility but locals and politicians blamed Shia militia groups who control much of the security in area
Sunni Muslim men pray over the bodies of eight out of 12 fellow Iraqis who were reportedly kidnapped on 17 October (AFP)

Iraq's prime minister has pledged to step up security in central Iraq after the abduction and murder of a group of Sunnis in Salahuddin province.

According to the Rudaw news site, 10 bodies were discovered on Saturday near the village of Farahat in Balad. They belonged to a group of 12 people, a number of them minors, who were abducted from the village last week.

No group has claimed responsibility but locals and politicians have blamed Shia militia groups who control much of the security around Balad.

Much of Salahuddin fell under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group after 2014 before it was fully recaptured by an alliance of armed forces and militias in 2016. Since then, there have been reports of kidnappings, interrogations and other abuses at checkpoints established by armed groups in the region.

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Khaled Jabbarra, head of the Sunni political party Wafd, told Rudaw that those abducted were members of the Sunni tribal forces, local groups who were instrumental in recapturing territories from IS.

He added that responsibility for security in the region fell on Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iran-backed group who is regarded as a terrorist organisation by the US.

During a visit with the victims' families on Sunday, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said those responsible for the kidnappings would be brought to justice.

"Your sons who have been killed and persecuted are also our children. Their blood will not be lost in vain. We will direct the presence of the security forces to strengthen [security] and provide more protection," he was reported as saying.

"Terrorists will never have a shelter or place no matter how they try to infiltrate. The hand of law and justice will break the back of their remnants wherever they appear."

He was accompanied on the visit by the defence and interior ministers as well as the head of the Popular Mobilisation Authority, the body which nominally oversees the activities of militia groups in Iraq which are known collectively as the Hashd al-Shaabi.

'Outside the law'

Kadhimi has repeatedly pledged to curb the influence of the militias, the most powerful of which are backed by Iran, particularly in the wake of a number of high-profile assassinations and repeated attacks on US assets in the country.

Matthew Tueller, the US ambassador to Iraq, condemned the Farahat attack as a "heinous murder of Iraqi civilians" in a statement, while Nechirvan Barzani, President of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), urged Kadhimi to "take speedy measures to find the terror group behind the crime and bring the perpetrators to justice".

Barzani's comments also come in the wake of an attack on offices belonging to his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Baghdad by supporters of Hashd al-Shaabi.

The demonstrators broke through a security detail and torched the offices following comments from former foreign minister and KDP member Hoshyar Zebari, who described the militias as operating "outside the law".

Some burned Kurdish flags while others carried posters of assassinated Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Following the attack, Kadhimi convened an emergency meeting of the national security council where he announced 15 arrests and the launch of a probe into the guards' failure to protect the KDP headquarters.