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73 killed at Sunni mosque in Iraq

DIYALA, Iraq — Gunmen allegedly associated with a pro-government Shiite militia slaughtered more than 70 worshippers at a Sunni mosque in Diyala province Friday, heightening Iraq’s sectarian divide in a volatile part of the country where government forces and their militia allies are battling militants from the Islamic State.

The gunmen, reported to be members of one of the volunteer Shiite militias that have been working alongside the Iraqi army for two months, reportedly took 30 minutes to execute men attending Friday prayers at the Mosaib bin Omair mosque, according to witnesses. But other accounts, being pushed by pro-government media, claim the mosque was attacked by fighters from the Islamic State — who, it was claimed, used a suicide bomber followed by machine-gun fire — to punish local tribes for failing to support the nascent Islamic State’s caliphate project.

The scene was of epic carnage with at least 73 people killed, according to local health officials and witnesses reached by phone.

"When we entered the mosque (after the killings) it looked like hell, like judgment day," said Abu Abdullah, who lives near the mosque and heard the attack unfold. "Blood was everywhere."

The massacre, according to local accounts, followed a failed attempt to attack pro-government forces with a roadside bomb. After it exploded, witnesses saw two trucks full of armed men with covered faces enter the mosque.

"They killed all the people in the mosque," Abu Abdullah said.

Local government officials in Diyala province confirmed the attack and condemned the killings.

"We accuse the militias that did it," said provincial Gov. Amir al Majami. "They are supposed to be fighting (the Islamic State) and be under the control of the Iraqi security forces."

Assaib Ahl Haq, an Iranian trained- and equipped-militia that has active in Diyala fighting the Islamic State, was being widely blamed on pro-Islamic State Twitter accounts, but immediately issued a statement denying involvement.

The slaughter threatened to upend recent progress Iraqi leaders had made to create a new government that would unite its efforts against the Islamic State and resolve differences among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

Parliament’s two primary Sunni blocs demanded an investigation into the killings and announced that they would withdraw from the formation of a new government under Prime Minister designate Haider al Abadi unless the culprits are handed over.

"This is a natural result of accepting armed groups in the state. The crimes of the militias are targeting the political process," Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni, said at a news conference.

The attack also sparked calls for retribution from Sunnis in the province. Shiite militias have been in the area since June, when Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a fatwa calling his followers to defend Iraq against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State.