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Iraq tribesmen battle IS inside Fallujah for second day
By W.G. Dunlop
Baghdad (AFP) Feb 20, 2016

Iraq court sentences 40 to death over 2014 Tikrit massacre
Baghdad (AFP) Feb 18, 2016 - An Iraqi court on Thursday sentenced 40 men to hang over the June 2014 massacre by Sunni jihadists and allied militants of hundreds of military recruits in Tikrit, the judiciary said.

The central criminal court in Baghdad found 40 of 47 defendants guilty of involvement in the "Speicher" massacre, named after the base near where the victims were captured before being executed.

"The court ordered the execution of 40 (people) convicted of involvement in the incident, while seven were released for lack of evidence," Iraq's judiciary spokesman Abdel Sattar Bayraqdar said in the statement.

Bayraqdar said the sentences were handed down under Article Four of Iraq's anti-terrorism law, which states that anyone who perpetrates, incites, plans, finances or assists acts of terrorism will be sentenced to death.

A judicial source said all 47 were Iraqi citizens and present in court for their sentencing.

"Some of them actually did the killing and others assisted them in this crime," the official, who could not give his name because he was not authorised to talk to the press, told AFP.

He said the 40 were sentenced to death by hanging.

The court itself did not reveal the identities of the defendants nor any details of the circumstances of their arrest.

In a similar trial in July 2015, 24 men were sentenced to hang over the Speicher massacre, which was committed during the first days of the Islamic State group's sweeping offensive in Iraq.

All of them had denied involvement.

Some had said they were not even near Tikrit at the time, others that they never saw a lawyer and that the confessions used to secure convictions were obtained under torture.

- 'Flawed trial' -

Rights groups had criticised that trial as not meeting many of the standards required for such crimes.

The highest estimate for the number of men murdered in the Speicher massacre is 1,700. Tikrit was retaken from IS in April 2015.

Amnesty International on Thursday criticised "a fundamentally flawed mass trial" which it said brought the number of death sentences handed down by Iraqi courts this year to 92.

"For Iraqi courts to hand down 92 death sentences in just six weeks is a grim indicator of the current state of justice in the country," the rights watchdog's Middle East and North Africa deputy director James Lynch said in a statement.

"The vast majority of the trials have been grossly unfair, with many of the defendants claiming to have been tortured into 'confessing' the crimes," he said.

Before a death sentence can be carried out in Iraq, it must be ratified by the president.

Amnesty said the current head of state, Fuad Masum, has come under significant pressure to do so but called on the Iraqi authorities to establish an official moratorium on executions.

The Speicher massacre is considered one of IS' worst crimes since it took over large parts of the country in 2014.

Combined with a call by the country's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for Iraqis to take up arms against them, the Speicher massacre played a key role in the mass recruitment of Shiite volunteers to fight the jihadists.

Iraqi tribesmen battled Islamic State group militants inside their Fallujah stronghold for a second day Saturday, a significant challenge to longstanding jihadist control that may be undermined by a lack of supplies.

Fallujah is one of two Iraqi cities still controlled by IS, and residents -- said to number in the tens of thousands -- vastly outnumber the estimated 300 to 400 jihadists inside it.

But IS has had plenty of time to assert its control over the civilian population through arrests and public executions -- its usual means of discouraging dissent.

"Armed confrontations between the sons of the Fallujah tribes and the Daesh organisation are continuing," an army brigadier general said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

The clashes are taking place in Al-Jolan in northwest Fallujah and Nazal in the centre, the officer said, adding that the army was shelling IS positions on the city's outskirts.

There have been casualties among both the tribesmen and the jihadists, the officer said.

Tribal leader Sheikh Majeed al-Juraisi said that fighting was continuing in both the centre and north of Fallujah.

The tribesmen "are beginning to run out of supplies and need the support of the government," Juraisi said.

- Fear of 'massacre' -

There is "fear that they will completely run out and afterwards the Daesh organisation will arrest and massacre them."

In 2014 and 2015, IS executed dozens of members of the Albu Nimr tribe, which opposed the jihadists as they overran swathes of Anbar province, where Fallujah is located.

Saadun Obaid al-Shaalan, who was elected by a local council to administer the Fallujah area, confirmed that fighting was continuing, saying that tribesmen had posted snipers on rooftops in the Al-Askari area of east Fallujah.

He said that the tribesmen needed assistance and "we are trying to obtain that support" from the government.

Officials said the clashes began on Friday as a fight between tribesmen and Al-Hisba, IS members charged with enforcing religious strictures in the city.

Members of the Al-Juraisat, Al-Mahamda and Al-Halabsa tribes have taken part in the fighting, officials said.

Fallujah, which lies about 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad, is the only Iraqi city apart from IS's main northern hub Mosul still under jihadist control.

But IS also controls some large towns, including Tal Afar and Hawijah.

- Dire humanitarian situation -

Anti-government fighters took control of Fallujah in early 2014 during unrest that broke out after security forces demolished a protest camp farther west, and it later became an IS stronghold.

The tens of thousands of civilians in Fallujah are facing increasingly dire living conditions, and officials say IS is preventing civilians from leaving the city, which has largely been cut off by security forces.

Anbar Governor Sohaib al-Rawi has said that the situation in Fallujah "has reached a state of famine".

Lise Grande, the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said: "We are receiving reports of hunger and shortages of medicines and essential supplies.

"We know that people are trying to leave the city but are prevented from doing so. We fear that the situation is becoming desperate."

IS launched a sweeping offensive that overran swathes of Iraq in June 2014, but security forces and allied fighters have pushed the jihadists back with support from US-led air strikes.

Tribesmen have played a key role in holding the jihadists back in several areas, including Haditha in Anbar, Amerli in Salaheddin province and Dhuluiyah in Diyala.

Sunni Arab tribesmen from Anbar helped drive back IS's predecessor organisation Al-Qaeda in Iraq after joining forces with US troops from 2006.

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