Iraq's government is dropping barrel bombs and may also be targeting a hospital in its battle with militants in the conflict-hit city of Fallujah, Human Rights Watch alleged yesterday.
The Iraqi authorities denied the claims, which come with Baghdad locked in a months-long stand-off with anti-government fighters in Fallujah amid a surge in nationwide bloodshed, all of which is fuelling fears the country is slipping back into the all-out conflict of 2006 and 2007.
The New York-based rights watchdog also said abuses committed by the powerful Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant jihadist group - among the main militant organisations in Fallujah - were likely to amount to crimes against humanity.
HRW said that the military denied targeting Fallujah's main hospital, and the prime minister's spokesman issued a statement on May 12 denying the use of barrel bombs.
HRW's Iraq researcher Erin Evers said the militant groups had carried out "horrible crimes" but even these could not be equated to "the crimes of a government that has rescinded responsibility for protecting its civilian population".
The crisis in the desert province of Anbar, which borders Syria, erupted in late December when security forces dismantled a longstanding protest camp maintained by the province's mainly Sunni Arab population to vent their grievances against the government.
Militants subsequently seized parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi, and all of Fallujah, the first time anti-government forces have exercised such open control in major cities since the peak of the deadly violence that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
They have held all of Fallujah since, and protracted battles have continued over Ramadi.
Citing witnesses, residents and a government security official, HRW said in its report that since early May, Iraqi security forces had dropped barrel bombs - empty oil drums packed with explosives - on populated areas of Fallujah.
It said it also reviewed videos and photographs of what were apparently the remnants of exploded barrel bombs.
HRW also said the Iraqi government had shelled the main hospital to the point that such strikes "strongly suggest that Iraqi forces have targeted it, which would constitute a serious violation of the laws of war".