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Scores Of Sunnis Killed in Baghdad

A mother cries over her young boy wounded in crossfire during street fights, Sunday, July 9, 2006, in the Jihad area of western Baghdad, Iraq.
A mother cries over her young boy wounded in crossfire during street fights, Sunday, July 9, 2006, in the Jihad area of western Baghdad, Iraq. (Asaad Mouhsin - AP)

Police picked up 57 bodies from the al-Jihad neighborhood, and three Interior Ministry policemen were also killed there, said Ali Hussein, a commando with the Interior Ministry who ferried bodies to Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital. Gen. Saad Mohammed al-Tamini of the Interior Ministry confirmed that more than 50 people were killed.

Some of the corpses that littered the streets lay handcuffed, pocked with bullet holes, while others were pierced with bolts and nails, witnesses said.

Iraqi officials and residents of the neighborhood identified the gunmen as members of the Mahdi Army, the powerful militia controlled by the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In the past three days, Iraqi troops, with the support of U.S.-led forces, have raided the homes of militiamen and detained some of their leaders.

U.S. commanders and diplomats say Sadr and his militia constitute one of the gravest threats to Iraq's security. Two years ago, U.S. forces fought Mahdi Army militiamen in Baghdad and in the southern holy city of Najaf. Sadr also holds considerable sway over the political system, with ties to more than 30 members of parliament and several cabinet ministers.

On Sunday, Iraq's deputy prime minister for security affairs, Salam al-Zobaie, accused the Defense and Interior ministries of working with the militias to carry out the killings.

"Interior and Defense ministries are infiltrated, and there are officials who lead brigades who are involved in this," Zobaie said in an interview on al-Jazeera. "What is happening now is an ugly slaughter."

After the killings, Sadr appealed for calm but criticized what he called a "Western scheme" that foments "a civil and sectarian war among brothers."

"Iraq is passing through a critical phase and a worsening security situation in spite of the presence of an independent government," Sadr said in a statement. "I call on all parties, both governmental and popular, to exercise self-control first, and to shoulder their responsibility before God and society."

Other officials in Sadr's organization condemned the killings in al-Jihad and denied that the Mahdi Army was involved.

"We regret the statements made by some Sunni Arabs who said that the Mahdi Army militia had conducted the raid at Jihad and killed the innocent people there," said Riyadh al-Nouri, a top aide to Sadr and his brother-in-law. "If the Mahdi Army wanted to enter into a fight, Iraq would become a blood bath."

In al-Jihad, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood along the road to Baghdad International Airport, police in white pickup trucks patrolled the roads. Fighters gathered in the streets holding rocket launchers and belts of machine-gun ammunition while helicopters swarmed overhead. A hot wind scoured the neighborhood, scattering the black smoke that billowed from burning tires.

The Iraqi government later imposed a daytime curfew in the neighborhood, and mosque loudspeakers broadcast warnings that residents should flee or they would be killed.

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