A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet purporting to show Iraqi forces and Shi'ite militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy.
While not yet independently confirmed, the brutal killing already has gotten the attention of Islamic State followers on social media. It threatens to worsen a sectarian divide that already has enabled IS to spread across large swaths of Iraq.
U.S. officials say the video and others like it are "obviously very concerning" and worry it could allow the terror group to cement its hold on some predominantly Sunni areas.
Oren Adaki, an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who viewed the video, said there is not much identifying information or clues as to when the event took place, but that some things are clear.
“Whether these are Iraqi soldiers or Shiite militiamen, they are definitely Shiite,” Adaki said. “After the execution, the group of fighters chant “Labayki ya Zaynab” or “At your service, O Zaynab,” referring to Shiite saint Zaynab - daughter of Imam Ali and sister of Imam Hussein. This is a common battle cry of Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria.”
The video, just over a minute long, shows what appears to be Iraqi troops or Shi'ite militiamen, some with the Iraqi flag on their sleeves, gathered around the boy, who is kneeling on the ground with his hands bound behind his back.
One of the soldiers then slaps the boy in the face. There is a lot of cursing, and some of the soldiers yell “they spilled their blood.” What appear to be gunshots can be heard nearby. The soldiers then form a semi-circle around the boy, raise their machine guns and shoot him in the head.
The video first appears to have been posted to social media sites like YouTube and Facebook Tuesday, although it has since been taken down.
Arab media reports say the victim was an 11-year-old boy and that the shooting took place either in the eastern part of Diyala province or in the Ishaaqi section of Salah al Deen province.
State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said Friday the U.S. has "encouraged the Iraqi government to fully investigate any allegation of abuse," adding that such abuses by Iraqi forces or Shia militias, if confirmed, are "not what should be happening."
Islamic State followers have quickly picked up on the video, promoting it on social media, like Twitter, in what Adaki called “starkly sectarian terms.”
One account, belonging to someone who calls himself Abu Nimr Al-Deeghmi, tweeted “the Iraqi Shiite militias loyal to terrorist Iran kill a Sunni child who had not reached the age of puberty.”
A Twitter post claiming the boy was killed by “a US backed shia gang.”
Another account, @JihadProtocol, tweeted “U.S.-backed shia gang (swat rats) execute Sunni kid in middle of the street video.”
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren says the Defense Department has not yet been able to authenticate the video as of Tuesday, but he told VOA, “if true, though, it certainly depicts an act of brutality that we find completely unacceptable.”
The video and the attention it is generating is the type of scenario U.S. military leaders fear.
"The real key to defeat ISIL (IS) is actually convincing the Sunni that they should not embrace this group,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey told U.S. lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday, when asked about the ongoing Iraqi offensive in Tikrit.
“If this becomes an excuse to ethnic cleanse, then our campaign has a problem and we’re going to have to make a campaign adjustment," he warned.
Human rights groups also are fearful the campaign in Tikrit could lead to atrocities.
“Past fighting raises grave concerns that Tikrit’s civilians are at serious risk from both ISIS and government forces, and both sides need to protect civilians from more sectarian slaughter,” Human Rights Watch Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director Joe Stork said in a statement.
HRW says it already has documented numerous abuses against civilians in areas Iraqi forces have retaken from Islamic State. The allegations include mass killing of Sunni civilians and prisoners in the northern city of Mosul last June, as well as abuses in Diyala province, where the Sunni boy may have been killed.
As for the boy in the video, State Department officials refused to comment directly, but noted ongoing concerns about the issues of militias and human rights abuses.
“We have stressed to the government of Iraq, at all levels, the need for the militias to be under the command and control of the Iraqi security forces,” the official said. “Abusive tactics will fuel sectarian fears and promote sectarian divides.”
State Department Correspondent Sharon Behn and Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this story