Police said Tuesday that pro-government Shiite militiamen killed nearly four dozen Sunni detainees after insurgents tried to storm a jail and free them northeast of Baghdad. The Iraqi military, however, insisted the inmates were killed when the attackers shelled the facility.
Neither account could be independently confirmed, but the allegation of Shiite killings of Sunnis was the first hint of a possible return to past sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart. Sunni militants also have been accused of atrocities in areas they have captured over the past week.
The insurgents were repelled, but the fighting around the jail outside Baqouba was the closest to Baghdad since the al-Qaida breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began its lightning advance, seizing several key cities in the Sunni heartland in northern Iraq.
There were conflicting details about the fighting in the al-Kattoun district near Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province and one of the bloodiest battlefields of the U.S.-led war, and on how the detainees were killed. The city is 60 kilometres northeast of the Iraqi capital.
Three police officers said the police station, which has a small jail, came under attack on Monday night by Islamic militants who tried to free the detainees, mostly suspected Sunni militants.
The three said Shiite militiamen, who rushed to defend the facility, killed the detainees at close range. A morgue official in Baqouba said many of the slain detainees had bullet wounds to the head and chest. All four officials spoke on condition of anonymity fearing for their own safety.
However, Iraq's chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, told The Associated Press that 52 detainees who were held at the station in al-Kattoun died when the attackers from the Islamic State shelled it with mortars.
Nearly 300 armed American forces are being positioned in and around Iraq to help secure U.S. assets as President Barack Obama nears a decision on an array of options for combating the Islamic militants, including airstrikes or a contingent of special forces.
The White House has continued to emphasize that any military engagement remained contingent on the government in Baghdad making political reforms.
In Baghdad on Tuesday, a sticky bomb attached to a car in central Baghdad went off, killing three passengers and wounding 11 bystanders, according to police and hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.