86 Found Dead in Baghdad Strife

Times Staff Writer

The bodies of 86 men shot execution-style, tortured or strangled have been discovered in various Sunni and Shiite Muslim neighborhoods here during the two days since a bloody attack on the capital's largest Shiite slum, authorities said Tuesday.

Even for this violence-ridden city, the number was unusually high and the deaths particularly grisly, suggesting a further escalation of sectarian bloodshed.

At one site of shallow graves in a poor Shiite neighborhood in east Baghdad, police spent hours digging up 29 corpses after getting a tip from a boy who stumbled across one while playing soccer. On the other side of town, in a middle-class Sunni area, officers discovered 15 bodies stuffed inside an abandoned minivan.

In the last few weeks, hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in shootings, bombings and other attacks.

Many of the victims are believed to be Sunnis assassinated in reprisal attacks after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Shiites' holiest shrines.

"The path to civil war is available to the Iraqi people, and the path toward freedom and representative government is available to them. And they are standing at the crossroads right now," U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace said Tuesday at a Pentagon news briefing. He said he was optimistic that Iraqis "are going to go down the path of prosperity for themselves."

The bodies in the poor Shiite neighborhood of Fadhiliya in east Baghdad were found Tuesday morning after the youth discovered a half-buried corpse and alerted his parents. Police sealed off the area and began exhuming a number of shallow graves.

Five hours later, they had dug up the bodies of 29 men who had been tied up, blindfolded and shot. The blood of some victims was fresh, but eight of the men appeared to have been killed more than a week ago, officials said. In one of the graves, police dug up 10 victims dressed only in their underwear.

In the predominantly Sunni city of Mosul in the north, police found the bodies of three middle-aged men in civilian clothes who had been shot.

In the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, a police officer was killed by a roadside bomb, an Iraqi TV anchor was attacked and two girls were kidnapped on their way to school, officials said. A roadside bomb killed a Shiite pilgrim near Baqubah, north of Baghdad, as he was walking toward the holy city of Karbala, police said.

The U.S. military confirmed Tuesday that two soldiers assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 28th Infantry Division were killed Monday in Al Anbar province west of Baghdad.

In addition to 46 people found dead in the capital Tuesday, police said they collected 40 bodies from various neighborhoods Monday, including 13 in the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City, where bloody attacks were launched Sunday.

Most of the 86 victims appeared to have been killed within the last few days, but their identities were in many cases unclear. Officials estimated the men ranged in age from 25 to 35. Most were found without the national ID cards carried by most Iraqis.

One victim who had identity papers was a 22-year-old Sunni student whose first name was Laith, according to the Agence France-Presse wire service.

Baghdad, home to more than 5 million of Iraq's 26 million people, is now the undisputed focal point of violence in the country. But throughout Iraq, the number of civilians killed has risen inexorably since 2003. The Iraqi Body Count, a nongovernmental organization that tracks and collects media reports of civilian deaths, estimates that as of Monday, 33,638 to 37,754 Iraqis, excluding soldiers and suspected insurgents, had been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Mortar fire, roadside bombs and suicide attackers have caused many of the deaths. But the capital is now rife with clandestine executions -- silent killings rarely solved but suggesting neighbors increasingly turning on neighbors.

After recent reports that Sunni inmates were being tortured at secret detention facilities, the Iraqi government acknowledged that the Shiite-dominated security forces had become part of the problem and recently announced plans to overhaul police and military operations.

"The first half of 2005 was characterized most of all ... by random car bombings as well as heavy targeting of Iraqi security forces," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I would say the problem [of sectarian violence] began to get serious in the second half of 2005 and has of course intensified further of late."

In response to the violence, Iraqi residents of the capital are increasingly retreating behind barricades and barbed wire, breaking Baghdad up into a series of fortified islands.

The Iraqi government and American officials are themselves divorced from the rest of the city, occupying a number of palaces behind the tall walls of the Green Zone.

Outside the Green Zone, militias, neighborhood gangs and police commandos stake their turf, erecting checkpoints and patrolling the streets. The legitimacy of these black-masked men or to whom they are loyal is often hard to gauge.

On Tuesday, members of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Al Mahdi militia manned checkpoints throughout Sadr City. A few vendors sold fruits and vegetables, but most shops were closed. Men armed with AK-47s and other guns carried badges and weapon permits issued by Sadr's office, not the Ministry of Interior.

Iraqi police officers, predominantly Shiites, had erected their own checkpoints in a cordon around the neighborhood. The Iraqi army, whose ranks include many Sunni Arabs and Kurds, had no presence within Sadr City.

Late Sunday, in what appeared to be a coordinated attack, mortar rounds, rockets and several bombs killed 52 people in Sadr City and injured nearly 300. The bloodshed raised fears of reprisals against Sunnis. Whether the recovered bodies bore that out was unclear.

After the Samarra mosque bombing, Iraqi leaders called for calm, to little avail. Eventually, the government, which is embroiled in a political crisis over the selection of a prime minister, announced severe security crackdowns, including daytime curfews and vehicle bans.

On Tuesday, representatives from the main political parties met at the home of Abdelaziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the nation's largest Shiite party.

It was a rare gathering of political players from Sunni Arab, Shiite, Kurdish and secular parties. At a news conference after the meeting, interim President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who has opposed the renomination of Shiite interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, struck an optimistic note, saying he thought the government could be formed before the end of the month. The leaders agreed to meet for breakfast talks today at Talabani's Baghdad home.

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, meanwhile, told the Associated Press that security officials had foiled a plot that would have placed hundreds of Al Qaeda militants at crucial guard posts around the Green Zone.

A senior Defense Ministry official said the 421 Al Qaeda fighters were recruited to storm the U.S. and British embassies and take hostages. Several ranking Defense Ministry officials have been jailed in the alleged plot, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

The national Council of Representatives, or parliament, is scheduled to convene Thursday in the Green Zone in its first session since it was elected Dec. 15.

Officials announced Tuesday, however, that driving would be banned in the capital from 8 p.m. today until 4 p.m. Thursday, making it difficult for legislators who don't live in the Green Zone to make their way to the seat of government.

"Violence has its fingerprints on everything," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator. "It's affecting everything and every activity."

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Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Caesar Ahmed and a special correspondent in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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