The discovery Sunday of nearly three dozen bodies -- all Iraqi men apparently abducted and slain execution-style -- is the latest grisly episode in an escalating sectarian conflict fueled by this nation's raging insurgency.
Scores of corpses have been found in recent weeks in various locations -- floating in the Tigris, dumped in ditches, abandoned along roads fringed with date palms.
On Sunday, 13 blindfolded and bound men were found shot to death in one garbage-strewn Baghdad lot, authorities said. At least 11 more corpses were found at another site in the capital, and another 11 shooting victims were discovered in a chicken-farming district south of the capital.
The slayings had the nowfamiliar marks of sectarian violence: The group of 13 bodies found in Baghdad was left in a ditch in the same Shiite Muslim district where 14 corpses, said to be those of members of a Sunni Arab clan, were discovered last week; one official said the latest bodies had the type of long beards characteristic of some religious Sunnis.
The 11 other bodies found in Baghdad were discovered in an eastern district about 11:30 p.m. Sunday, an Interior Ministry official said. No other details were available.
The 11 victims found south of Baghdad, appeared to be Shiites ambushed by Sunni guerrillas on the perilous roads between the capital and the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
On Saturday, the bodies of 10 Iraqi soldiers were found in Ramadi, news services reported. The city in the western province of Al Anbar is an insurgent stronghold where the largely Sunni Arab population has chafed at the deployment of Shiite recruits.
Three and a half months after Iraq's election, celebrated worldwide as an inspiring case of popular will overcoming violence, sectarian tensions are mounting.
The landmark vote and the newly appointed government, rather than bringing Iraqis together, appear to have further frayed Iraq's already tenuous social fabric. Assassinations and executions now regularly accompany the suicide bombings that grab more headlines.
In separate incidents Sunday, gunmen killed Sheik Qassim Gharawi, a top aide to the Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and Hamid Mukhlis Duleimi, a Sunni cleric associated with the Muslim Scholars Assn., a leading Sunni group. Gharawi was slain in a drive-by shooting; Duleimi was killed at his home by men who arrived in the type of SUVs favored by security forces, an Interior Ministry official said.
Relentless insurgent attacks on Shiite neighborhoods, mosques, religious festivals and on the Shiite-dominated security services have killed hundreds and strained the patience of a people liberated from decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein. The dictator's Baathist regime favored the Sunni Arab minority who are now believed to dominate the insurgency.
Now many Shiites are openly pleading that their top clerics, the Najaf-based marjaiyah, allow them to seek retaliation.
"If the marjaiyah will give us one sign, we will exterminate the Sunnis from Hilla to Mosul," said Muayad Kadhim Abady, a driver from the hardscrabble southern village of Ghamas, home to 19 fishermen found slain in a soccer stadium in the Sunni Arab city of Haditha late last month.
No one is sure how long Sistani can hold back the Shiite masses from exacting wholesale retribution -- in fact many Sunni Arabs fear it has already begun.
Newly emboldened police commando squads have raided Sunni mosques and arrested Sunni religious leaders, who call them Shiite avengers.
A car bomb exploded April 30 outside the Baghdad headquarters of a Sunni political organization, the National Dialogue Council. Members blame the Shiite-dominated security forces or allied paramilitaries, but the bombers may have been Sunni insurgents outraged at the council's perceived collaboration with the new government.
"The definition of civil war is when the Shiites on the ground start to hit back," said Hussein Shahristani, a top Sistani aide and first deputy speaker of the National Assembly.
"People are hurt very deeply and feel they should be allowed to defend themselves. Of course they feel they are capable of defending themselves. There is hardly an Iraqi household without weapons of all sorts."
U.S. and Iraqi authorities have said that one of the goals of the insurgency is to spark a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. But officials downplay the possibility of outright sectarian war -- characterizing some of the recent violence as tribal feuds and expressing confidence in what they call Shiite "restraint."
The Shiite "political and religious leadership is being very, very firm on not doing tit-for-tat violence, because they know that will quickly disintegrate into at least a two-way civil war," said a senior U.S. official, who declined to be named. "And they don't want that."
The Bush administration hopes that disaffected Sunnis will participate in the next round of elections, defusing sectarian tensions and sapping support from the insurgency. But officials acknowledge there is no guarantee that hostility among the major sects won't deepen.
Since the U.S.-led ouster of Hussein in 2003, previously off-limits assertions of ethnic and religious identity have resurfaced. Two years later, those attachments dominate almost every aspect of Iraqi social and political life, from theories on combating the insurgency to the choice for minister of tourism.
Religious and ethnic affiliations -- Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish -- largely determined January's electoral results. Shiite Islamists and a Kurdish bloc won; the vast majority of Sunni Arabs didn't even vote, either in protest or for fear of insurgent reprisal.
And so the new government reflects rather than bridges the nation's divisions. Policies, ideologies and programs have taken a back seat to sectarian and ethnic power struggles as ministries have been divvied up on a strict quota system, fueling concerns over the "Lebanonization" of Iraq.
On the ascendant, Shiite leaders speak of the need for reconciliation while endorsing an accelerated campaign aimed at purging hard-line former members of Hussein's Baath Party who, many Shiite leaders believe, have crept back into the public sector.
"We will implement the law, the de-Baathification law," vowed Ahmad Chalabi, onetime Pentagon favorite who is now a deputy prime minister and a leading advocate of the policy.
Such hard talk, Sunni Arab leaders warn, will only deepen alienation among the group. Saadoun Zubaidi, an official with the National Dialogue Council, referred to the process as "de-Sunnification."
Zubaidi, who served as Hussein's personal translator before the war, called de-Baathification "a flimsy pretext to keep the Sunni Arabs in the west in a state of alienation."
In fact, many Shiites were also in the Baath Party, members on one level or another of Hussein's regime. Deputy Speaker Shahristani, who was imprisoned for a decade at Abu Ghraib by Hussein, says most of his jailers were Shiites.
But Sunni leaders say Shiites affiliated with the former regime are being given a pass, while Sunnis are, in effect, being blackballed.
"There is not one Sunni Arab family in Iraq who does not have a Baathist among them," said Mishaan Jaburi, a wealthy businessman who is one of the fewer than 20 Sunni Arabs in the 275-member National Assembly.
"De-Baathification amounts to the removal of Sunni Arabs," he said.
The slaying of the 14 Sunni farmers from the tense, religiously mixed town of Salman Pak, southeast of Baghdad, was emblematic of what many fear is a new phase of death squad-style reprisals. There's little doubt in the minds of relatives that the victims -- found May 6 in a ditch in largely Shiite east Baghdad -- were killed because they were Sunnis.
"It seems as if the mass graves are coming back," said Dhia Hadithi of the Sunni Waqf, or religious endowment.
The issue of mass graves has become a polarizing one. Some Sunni Arabs, feeling marginalized and threatened in the new Iraq, are resentful of the attention focused in the last two years on the newly uncovered mass graves of thousands of Shiites and Kurds killed by the Hussein regime.
"Why are only the old mass graves being condemned?" Hadithi asked. "We have new ones happening."
The growing mistrust is palpable. As families mourned their dead, both Sunnis and Shiites vowed vengeance, each group blaming the other.
The families of the 19 slain Shiite fishermen have no doubt that that their kinsmen were tortured at leisure, then executed with the full knowledge of most residents of Haditha, a rebel hot spot deep in Al Anbar, in the Sunni heartland.
Relatives say the victims were abducted on their way to a favored fishing spot, paraded through town, and then taken to the local stadium and executed in front of a crowd.
"There is no god but God, and the Sunnis are the enemies of God," shouted enraged mourners at the fishermen's funeral in Ghamas, in Iraq's southern Shiite belt.
The families of the Sunni farmers from Salman Pak say they have little doubt that Shiite police officers are acting as government-ordered hit squads. Relatives say men in police uniforms kidnapped the 14 members of the prominent Dulaimi clan from a produce market.
The Shiite-run Interior Ministry denies police involvement in the killings. But both sides are clinging to their own narratives.
Outside the Baghdad morgue last week, a crowd of furious Sunni tribesmen collected the corpses of slain relatives. One mocked the promises of security and stability made by the new prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari, leader of the Islamic Dawa Party, a Shiite group.
"Congratulations to Jafari," he said. "Congratulations for him and the forces he brought to kill us! Congratulations!"
Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Suhail Ahmad, Caesar Ahmed and Shamil Aziz in Baghdad and Saad Fakhrildeen in Ghamas contributed to this report.