By Ellen Knickmeyer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
BAGHDAD, March 14 -- Asked for directions to one newly found pile of bodies in Baghdad, Haider Latif Ugaili, an 18-year-old black-market gasoline vendor, replied: That one's over there. But we found three bodies here this morning.
Daylight Tuesday brought the discovery of at least 86 shot or strangled men across the city, most of them with hands tied and many of them tortured, according to police. They included 27 corpses in one of the first mass graves to be found in the capital since the U.S. invasion three years ago.
The day's high toll -- of execution-style killings involving large numbers of victims, rather than the bombing deaths that have characterized insurgent attacks and dominated violence in Iraq for more than two years -- appeared linked to escalating cycles of sectarian slaughter since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra. The toll since the bombing is nearing 1,000, according to government figures; four Iraqi and international officials tracking the toll say it topped that figure in the first week after the Samarra bombing.
Tuesday's body count went largely without note in public statements by Iraqi leaders, including Shiite and other political figures who convened in a heavily guarded meeting in Baghdad meant to help efforts to form a government, one day shy of three months after national elections. A Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohammed, said the day's victims included Shiites and Sunnis and called the killings "a premeditated attempt to incite civil war."
The mass grave was found in a former Gypsy enclave bordering a heavily Shiite neighborhood on the eastern edge of Baghdad. A police spokesman, Col. Hadi Hasan, said the victims were men ages 25 to 40. All were found with their hands tied and wearing civilian clothes, Hasan said. They appeared to have been killed two to 10 days ago, police said.
Children playing soccer discovered the grave by its smell, police separately told the Reuters news agency.
In the west Baghdad neighborhood of Khadra, near a school, police found a minibus containing the bodies of 10 men. "Some of them were shot and some were choked by ropes," Hasan said.
A minibus in the western Sunni neighborhood of Amiriyah contained the corpses of eight men, and Hasan said all had been bound, blindfolded and shot.
In Rustamiya, a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood in southern Baghdad, authorities found five men shot dead and covered by blankets, Hasan said.
Authorities picked up the bodies of 11 men in the mixed southern neighborhood of Madean. All wore the dishdasha , or traditional Arab dress, Hasan said.
In Kasrah Atash, in southern Baghdad, killers left the bodies of seven men by the side of the road. The men had been tortured and shot, Hasan said, adding that a piece of paper left with the bodies stated: "The fate of traitors."
Iraqi police also found more than 15 corpses Tuesday morning in Sadr City, according to Capt. Ahmed al-Ani, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. Sadr City is a trash-strewn, dusty urban district that is home to 2 million Shiites, overwhelmingly loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, a young Shiite cleric and militia leader.
The timing and means of Tuesday's killings raised suspicions that some of the deaths were retaliatory attacks for bombings Sunday evening that killed 58 people in Sadr City. The concerted bombings were among the deadliest of the war in the Shiite enclave and suggested that Sunni insurgents or their allies had made their first inroads into the district, which is policed by Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, whose members number in the thousands.
After the first wave of violence that followed the Feb. 22 mosque bombing, survivors accused black-clad Mahdi fighters of taking away men who were later found dead in Baghdad's morgue. Officials with Sadr's organization denied any role by his militia, and Sadr political leaders and spokesmen on Tuesday denied that there had been any killings in Sadr City on Monday or Tuesday.
The number of execution-style deaths reported by police and news media usually is only a fraction of the total, according to morgue statistics that have shown such killings doubling since the middle of last year. International officials say the morgue -- and the Health Ministry that oversees it and is controlled by Sadr's political bloc -- have been increasingly reluctant to disclose the number of execution-style killings, which are often linked to Shiite militias or the security forces of the Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry.
On Tuesday, Health Ministry spokesman Qasim Yahiya said he had no new figures for killings of any sort. The acting morgue director, Qais Hassan, declined to give any figures Tuesday without signed clearance from the Health Ministry. When that was obtained, he declined again to give any figures, saying he was away from his office and did not want to give an incorrect accounting.
A worker outside the morgue said the Health Ministry over the weekend increased from once a week to twice a week its shipments of unclaimed bodies to the southern city of Najaf for burial, sending roughly 150 Friday and about 70 Monday.
Mahdi Army fighters, who have adopted street clothes since people called attention to black-uniformed death squads after the mosque bombing, stood with AK-47 assault rifles and walkie-talkies outside the morgue and at a checkpoint in the neighborhood leading to the mass grave in east Baghdad.
On a main road a few blocks from the mass grave, Ugaili, the black-market vendor, pointed to the spot a few feet away where he said police in pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles had come to collect three blanket-covered bodies. They also retrieved either two or three from the other side of the road, he said. A laborer at the site, Ali Hussein, 19, gave the same account separately.
"It's become normal to find bodies," Ugaili said. "It's every other day."
Also Tuesday, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr amplified in an interview with the Associated Press accounts of what he said was a foiled al-Qaeda plot to overrun Baghdad's Green Zone. Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi gave a similar account Monday, saying that the plot involved more than 400 al-Qaeda fighters allegedly recruited to infiltrate Iraq's army and that it had been discovered with the arrest of one suspect.
U.S. military and civilian spokesmen said they had no information on the alleged plot.
U.S. Army officials also disclosed Tuesday that two men carrying Iraqi police identification and two men carrying identification of Sadr's Mahdi Army were among nine men arrested Monday on suspicion of involvement in a plot to assassinate Iraqi Interior Ministry officials.
A U.S. Army patrol stopped the men in two vehicles for a random search Monday night and found in each vehicle a "list of names and addresses of personnel to shoot on sight. Names on the list included" Interior Ministry officials, Maj. Steve Stover, a deputy public affairs officer with the 4th Infantry Division, said in an e-mail statement.
The nine men were taken to a U.S. detention center, Stover said.
The day's other reported dead included three bodies found in the northern city of Mosul, one Shiite pilgrim killed by a bomb near the southern city of Karbala, and the editor of an Iraqi weekly shot to death near his home in Baghdad, police told news agencies. The editor, Muhsin Khudhair, was the third Iraqi journalist killed in a week.
The U.S. military also reported Tuesday the deaths of two American soldiers in Anbar province on Monday, without giving details.
Tuesday's grisly finds unfolded as Iraqi politicians began what they said would be daily meetings of all of the main political parties to form a national unity government. The creation of a government has been delayed for three months -- since parliamentary elections Dec. 15 -- by political power struggles, sectarian bloodshed and opposition to the Shiites' nominee for prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jafari, who has been transitional prime minister for about a year.
The meeting was hosted by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a prominent Shiite cleric and head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a key member of the Shiite coalition that won 130 seats in the December balloting, the largest block in the 275-member parliament.
Participants in the meeting said afterward that little headway had been made.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in an interview published Sunday in London's al-Hayat newspaper that the delay was "due to the fact that politicians are occupied with distribution of posts, and their discussions are about individuals. They have to understand that the interest of Iraq must come first, as we are in a crisis. The country is bleeding and headed for a civil war, and it's the responsibility of Iraqi politicians to feel people's pains and understand their needs."
That sentiment was echoed Tuesday in the streets of the capital, where roadblocks, street closures and other security measures put in place for the gathering of political leaders at Hakim's headquarters caused gridlock across central Baghdad.
"What kind of people are those politicians who did not even think of the people and how would they go to work and school?" said Ahmed Sabah, 23, a student at Baghdad University. "How do they expect to build a developed country if an employee can't go to his job and a student and professor cannot go to their school?"
"I am sure that after this terrible day," he said, "they will not agree on anything."
Correspondent John Ward Anderson in Baghdad and special correspondents Bassam Sebti and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and Hassan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.