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Insurgent groups accused of war crimes

BAGHDAD -- Insurgent groups in Iraq are committing war crimes by targeting civilians in mass killings, abductions, and beheadings, a human rights group said today.

Human Rights Watch, which often has criticized alleged abuses by US forces in Iraq, turned its attention in its latest report to insurgent groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and Ansar al-Sunnah that have claimed responsibility for attacks in mosques, markets, bus stations, and other civilian areas in Iraq.

The group also said the disregard for the lives of civilians in the mostly Muslim country was backfiring in terms of popular support for the insurgency elsewhere in the Arab world.

''People we have spoken with in the Middle East are increasingly repulsed by the behavior of insurgent groups in Iraq, even if they support a withdrawal of US troops," said Sara Leah Whitson, the region's Human Rights Watch director.

''There are no justifications for targeting civilians, in Iraq or anywhere else," Whitson said. ''Armed groups, as well as governments, must respect the laws of war."

Iraq's courts have convicted some insurgents, but there is no sign of a major push for an international war crimes trial against the militants, even if Al Qaeda in Iraq's leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is caught.

The Shi'ite-dominated interim government is focusing on what it considers a higher-priority case: the trial of ousted leader Saddam Hussein for alleged war crimes during his time in power.

Hussein's first trial is due to begin Oct. 19, and if convicted, he could be sentenced to death.

In the meantime, Iraqi and US forces are trying to put down the Sunni-led insurgency amid stepped-up attacks ahead of an Oct. 15 vote on a new constitution.

Zarqawi's group has declared ''all-out war" on Shi'ites, and suicide bombers have killed at least 1,345 people since the government took power April 28, according to an Associated Press count. Last week alone, car bombings hit markets in two Shi'ite towns, killing more than 110 people, one-fifth of them women and children.

In its report, Human Rights Watch listed 73 insurgent attacks between August 2003 and Sept. 17 this year in which at least 10 civilians were killed in each attack. The most deaths came Sept. 14-15, when a series of car bombs in Baghdad killed nearly 200.

The group dismissed the arguments that insurgent groups and their supporters often use to justify attacks on civilians -- including that their victims are legitimate targets because they support foreign forces in Iraq.

Those rationales ''have no basis in international law, which requires the protection of any civilian who is not actively participating in the hostilities."

The laws of war do not outlaw insurgent groups or ban attacks on legitimate military targets, but they do oblige all forces in a conflict to protect civilians and other noncombatants, it said.

Mass killings with suicide car bombs in public places ''are war crimes and in some cases may constitute crimes against humanity, which are defined as serious crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population," Human Rights Watch said.

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