By Joshua Partlow and Saad al-Izzi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 10, 2006
BAGHDAD, July 9 -- Shiite Muslim militiamen rampaged through a Sunni Arab neighborhood in Baghdad early Sunday morning, killing more than 50 people and discarding bodies in the streets, according to Iraqi officials and witnesses. Hours later, attackers struck back, detonating two car bombs near a Shiite mosque.
Sunni politicians described the violence against the Sunni residents of the al-Jihad neighborhood in western Baghdad as one of the deadliest waves of murder since the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The killings occurred on a day when the U.S. military announced charges against four soldiers in the alleged rape and murder of a girl and the killing of three members of her family in the southern Iraqi town of Mahmudiyah. [Details, A14.]
Sectarian killings escalated sharply across Iraq after a bomb destroyed a revered golden-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22. The bombing prompted reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques and pushed the country further toward all-out civil war.
In Baghdad on Sunday, the armed men, some wearing masks and dressed in black, descended on the al-Jihad neighborhood in buses after sunrise. They set up checkpoints along a main commercial street, demanded identification cards from passersby and burst into homes to single out Sunni Arabs to kill, residents said.
One resident, Hazim al-Rawi, said he gathered up his family and fled the neighborhood after he saw 15 bodies outside his home.
"Some of them were tortured with drills," he said of the bodies. "Some of them were hanged by ropes."
A U.S. military spokesman said that Iraqi national police and American soldiers found 11 dead Iraqis in three locations in the neighborhood. The higher casualty reports "do not marry up with what we have found," Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington said.
Still, Sunni politicians said the spate of attacks gravely exacerbated the problems in Baghdad, where killings occur almost daily, and they accused Iraqi police of collaborating with Shiite militiamen in the violence.
"This is a new step. A red line has been crossed," said Alaa Makky, a Sunni member of parliament. "People have been killed in the streets; now they are killed inside their homes."
Attackers retaliated by detonating two bombs in cars parked at al-Timim Shiite mosque in central Baghdad. At least 12 people were killed, including five policemen, and 18 were wounded, according to Lt. Col. Memduh Abdulla of the Rusafa police district. The Associated Press reported that 17 people were killed and 38 hurt.
"We've said it several times that there are people who want to create civil war," Wafiq al-Samarrae, an adviser to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, said on al-Jazeera television. "Today, this country is on the edge of civil war, not sectarian strife."
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.
Hayider Hussein, a resident, said that outside his house, militiamen were milling around a minibus in which the bodies of the driver and a dozen passengers could be seen.
"They were all shot in the head," he said.
Ali Muhsin, 58, a retiree who lives in the neighborhood, said he saw gunmen in three cars pull up near his house and begin shooting people. Four corpses lay on the ground about 100 yards from his door and he saw four other people shot at a vegetable market nearby, he said.
Muhsin described seeing gunmen get out of a sedan, remove two bodies from the trunk "and throw them on the street."
Residents said the violence stemmed from a car bomb attack on the Shiite al-Zahra mosque Saturday night, expanding into door-to-door pursuit of Sunnis by Shiites.
Outside the morgue at the Yarmouk Hospital, a distraught woman wearing a red head scarf searched for her missing brother. At 7 a.m., she said, black-clad gunmen broke into her house and demanded to know the family's tribal name. When her brother responded "Jubour," one of the gunmen said, "You are definitely Sunnis."
"I swear on Hussein, I swear on Ali, that we are Shiites," her brother, Muzahim Salman, pleaded, referring to relatives of the prophet Muhammad who are revered by Shiites.
The gunmen locked the woman, who refused to give her full name, and her mother in a room before kidnapping her brother. A half-hour later, she said, she called her brother's cellphone.
"The man who answered said: 'We are the Mahdi Army. We killed your brother. Go to the morgue and pick up his body.' "
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti, K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.