By Ellen Knickmeyer and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
BAGHDAD, Feb. 27 -- Grisly attacks and other sectarian violence unleashed by last week's bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine have killed more than 1,300 Iraqis, making the past few days the deadliest of the war outside of major U.S. offensives, according to Baghdad's main morgue. The toll was more than three times higher than the figure previously reported by the U.S. military and the news media.
Hundreds of unclaimed dead lay at the morgue at midday Monday -- blood-caked men who had been shot, knifed, garroted or apparently suffocated by the plastic bags still over their heads. Many of the bodies were sprawled with their hands still bound -- and many of them had wound up at the morgue after what their families said was their abduction by the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"After he came back from the evening prayer, the Mahdi Army broke into his house and asked him, 'Are you Khalid the Sunni infidel?' " one man at the morgue said, relating what were the last hours of his cousin, according to other relatives. "He replied yes and then they took him away."
Aides to Sadr denied the allegations, calling them part of a smear campaign by unspecified political rivals.
By Monday, violence between Sunni Arabs and Shiites appeared to have eased. As Iraqi security forces patrolled, American troops offered measured support, in hopes of allowing the Iraqis to take charge and prevent further carnage.
But at the morgue, where the floor was crusted with dried blood, the evidence of the damage already done was clear. Iraqis arrived throughout the day, seeking family members and neighbors among the contorted bodies.
"And they say there is no sectarian war?" demanded one man. "What do you call this?"
The brothers of one missing man arrived, searching for a body. Their hunt ended on the concrete floor, provoking sobs of mourning: "Why did you kill him?" "He was unarmed!" "Oh, my brother! Oh, my brother!"
Morgue officials said they had logged more than 1,300 dead since Wednesday -- the day the Shiites' gold-domed Askariya shrine was bombed -- photographing, numbering and tagging the bodies as they came in over the nights and days of retaliatory raids.
The Statistics Department of the Iraqi police put the nationwide toll at 1,020 since Wednesday, but that figure was based on paperwork that is sometimes delayed before reaching police headquarters. The majority of the dead had been killed after being taken away by armed men, police said.
The disclosure of the death tolls followed accusations by the U.S. military and later Iraqi officials that the news media had exaggerated the violence between Shiites and Sunnis over the past few days.
The bulk of the previously known deaths were caused by bombings and other large-scale attacks. But the scene at the morgue and accounts related by relatives indicated that most of the bloodletting came at the hands of self-styled executioners.
"They killed him just because he was a Sunni," one young man at the morgue said of his 32-year-old neighbor, whose body he was retrieving.
Much of the violence has centered on mosques, many of which were taken over by Shiite gunmen, bombed or burned.
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, aides to Sadr denied any role in the killings.
"These groups wore black clothes like the Mahdi Army to make the people say that the Shiites kidnapped and killed them," said Riyadh al-Nouri, a close aide to Sadr.
Sahib al-Amiri, another close aide, said: "Some political party accused [Sadr's political party] and the Mahdi Army because they considered us as competitive to them. So they recruited criminals to kill Shiites and Sunnis."
After Wednesday's mosque attack in Samarra, Sadr and other Shiite clerics called on their armed followers to deploy to protect shrines across Iraq.
Clutching rocket-propelled grenade launchers and automatic rifles, the militias rolled out of their Baghdad base of Sadr City. Residents of several neighborhoods reported them on patrol or in control of mosques. U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces did not appear to challenge the militias, which are officially outlawed.
Sunni leaders charged that more than 100 Sunni mosques were burned, fired upon or bombed in the retaliatory violence after the attack on the Samarra mosque.
Iraqi officials, at the urging of Sunni leaders, imposed what became a round-the-clock curfew in Baghdad to try to quell the violence.
Sunnis speaking at the morgue said many of the dead had been taken away at night, when security forces were supposed to have been enforcing the curfew.
By Monday, the reported violence had subsided. Four mortar rounds hit a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, killing four people, news agencies reported. More mortar attacks boomed in other parts of the capital.
Also Monday, Iraq's interim government lifted the round-the-clock curfew in Baghdad. The new curfew orders residents inside from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Residents rushed out of their homes to refill gas tanks and kitchen shelves. Lines at gas stations stretched for miles and sometimes clogged both sides of highways. One motorist in the line was seen clutching a blanket and pillow, apparently anticipating an overnight wait for gas.
Making their way through the traffic were a few cars with plastic-wrapped corpses in crude wooden coffins strapped to the roofs.
During two hours at the morgue on Monday, families brought in two more victims of the violence to receive death certificates. Other families carried away 10 dead. Most of the victims were Sunni.
At the blue steel doors of the morgue, dozens more bloody bodies could be seen on the floor or on gurneys. Two hundred were still unidentified and unclaimed, morgue workers said.
Claiming the dead has become automated. Morgue workers directed families to a barred window in the narrow courtyard outside the main entrance. A computer screen angled to face the window flashed the contorted, staring faces of the dead: men shot in the mouth, men shot in the head, men covered with blood, men with bindings twisted around their necks.
Men and a few women in black abayas pressed up to the window's black bars as the reek of the bodies inside spilled out.
"What neighborhood?'' a morgue worker asked one waiting man.
"Adhamiyah,'' the man said, naming a predominantly Sunni neighborhood.
Tapping at the keyboard, the morgue worker fast-forwarded through the scores of tortured faces.
"Criminals. How can you kill another human for nothing?" someone clutching the bars asked.
"Good news, we found the body," another man called out. "We found him."
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf, staff writer Nelson Hernandez and other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.