Mass grave in Iraq holds at least 50
Mystery and dread shrouded a freshly discovered mass grave site filled with the remains of at least 50 and perhaps as many as 100 people, some of them children, in a river valley north of here.
Iraqi police announced the find Saturday after stumbling upon the badly decomposed bodies during a raid a day earlier. The dead were buried near the town of Khalis, in one of the many fruit, date and palm orchards that line the Diyala River, just north of the provincial capital of Baqubah.
Iraqis long associated mass graves with the atrocities of former President Saddam Hussein’s regime, including large-scale executions of Kurdish and Shiite Muslim civilians suspected of sympathizing with anti-government rebels in the 1980s and 1990s.
But in the five years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, mass killings also became a tactic in sectarian warfare between Shiites and Sunni Arabs that threatened to break the country apart. U.S. and Iraqi officials said Saturday that they had not confirmed the identities of the victims in the newly found grave.
“The skeletal remains appear to have been in the grave for a long time, and we have not yet determined who might be responsible for their death and burial,” Maj. Winfield Danielson, a U.S. military spokesman, said by e-mail.
But Iraqi police and residents believe they were killed and buried sometime in the last five years. An Iraqi security official who saw the grave site said the bodies appeared to have been dumped over a period of time, rather than all at once, and that so far, only 13 had been excavated.
Residents say the orchard is in a rural area known as Salem, near a hamlet called Albu Tama. Some locals suspect that the site was a dumping ground used by Shiite Muslim militias disposing the remains of Sunni victims. Authorities last week arrested the mayor of Khalis on suspicion of involvement in such activities. The town is considered to be a hub of Shiite militiamen associated with cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army, although the outlying countryside is mostly under the sway of Sunni extremists.
The area was once a stronghold of Hussein’s Baath Party, but Shiite militiamen took control over the mostly Sunni inhabitants in 2006, said Khaled Abed Rahman, 35, a high school history teacher.
“Sometimes during the hard days, they established checkpoints while wearing police uniforms and detained people based on their [sectarian] identities,” he said.
The perpetrators could also prove to have been groups associated with the Sunni insurgent organization Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Two years ago, Sunni insurgents declared the province part of a self-styled caliphate and launched a campaign of kidnapping and assassination.
Daily violence continues in Diyala province, a troubled patchwork of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish hamlets abutting the Iranian border. Police said five people were killed Saturday when two roadside bombs exploded minutes apart along a well-traveled route through Wajihiya, about 15 miles east of Baqubah.
The first blast hit a car, killing a woman and her two children, and injuring her husband and another relative, police said.
The second bomb exploded near a passing minibus, killing two people and injuring eight others, they said.
A U.S. soldier was killed and another injured in an explosion Friday while conducting operations in Diyala, the military said in a statement released Saturday. At least 3,975 U.S. personnel have been killed since the start of the U.S.-led war in March 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org.
In Baghdad, authorities discovered the bullet-riddled bodies of four Iraqi males, and south of the capital, gunmen killed an official of the country’s main Shiite political party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
In the southern city of Basra, hundreds of demonstrators loyal to the Shiite party demonstrated for better law enforcement to quell what they called an increase in kidnappings and assassinations.
“The demonstration is peaceful, aiming to draw the security forces’ attention and to confront the crimes which have mounted lately in Basra,” said one party official, who asked that he not be named. “We want the security forces to confront the criminals who are killing and kidnapping during daylight.”
Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad and Hillah contributed to this report.