BEIRUT — Human Rights Watch on Thursday blasted Islamic State militants over their atrocities, but also criticized the "sectarian and abusive" policies of the Syrian and Iraqi governments, saying they fuel extremism.
The criticism came in a 656-page annual report that reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries.
In the report, HRW said the Islamic State group spreading terror in the Middle East is in part a product of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and detainee abuse in Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison and other detention centers run by U.S. forces during the eight-year conflict.
The report said human rights violations in Egypt, Iraq and Syria have also radicalized Muslims, boosting recruitment to extremist groups that present themselves as defenders of the region's Sunnis.
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth told The Associated Press that as long as Iraq continues to rely on Shiite militias, and Syrian President Bashar Assad's military bombards rebel-held areas, some Sunnis will prefer to live under the Islamic State group's brutal rule.
"So long as the Shiite militias are targeting Sunnis because they are Sunni it's making the Sunni population feel actually safer with ISIS than it would under rule by Baghdad, and that is a disaster for any effort to counter the severe atrocities by ISIS," Roth said in Beirut after the official release of the report.
"We hope that the international community will focus not only on ISIS's atrocities but on Assad's atrocities," he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
The HRW report said funding of extremist groups by Gulf states and their citizens also played a role in stoking militancy across the volatile region.
The United States and several Arab allies have been striking the Islamic State group in Syria since September, and U.S. and other allies have been waging a similar air campaign against the extremists in Iraq for even longer.
But HRW expressed concern that the international campaign against the Islamic State group could fall short if action is not taken to halt abuses carried out by Assad's government.
"This selective concern allows ISIS recruiters to portray themselves to potential supporters as the only force willing to stand up to Assad's atrocities," the report said.
"Since the coalition has been militarily bombing ISIS, there has been a reduction in attention to Syrian government atrocities and particularly to the barrel bombs, even though the barrel bombs are continuing, and as far as we can tell are the main source of Syrian civilian deaths today" said Roth.
The so-called barrel bombs -- canisters packed with explosives usually dropped from helicopters -- cannot be precisely targeted. The use of barrel bombs by Syrian government forces has killed thousands of people and caused widespread devastation in rebel-held areas.
"If the conditions that led to ISIS are left to fester, the group could deepen its hold on the two countries and expand into Lebanon, Jordan, Libya and beyond," the report warned.
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, saying it was in the grip of a human rights crisis that is "the most serious in the country's modern history."
It said the government consolidated control through "constriction of basic freedoms and a stifling campaign of arrests targeting political opponents."
It said President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who took office in June, has overseen a reversal of the human rights gains that followed the 2011 uprising.
"Security forces and an increasingly politicized judiciary_apparently unnerved by rising armed group attacks_invoked national security to muzzle nearly all dissent," the report said. "Judges routinely ordered detainees held for months based on little, if any, evidence."
Roth said el-Sissi's crackdown following the 2013 overthrow of democratically-elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi is "sending a message around the region that if you believe in politics guided by Islam don't bother with the ballot box because even if you win an election there will be a coup."
"This is like a gift to ISIS, who say 'why bother with electoral means? They are just going to overthrow you anyhow and the only route to a government guided by Islam is the route of violence,'" he said.