By Ellen Knickmeyer and Muhanned Saif Aldin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 16, 2006
BAGHDAD, Oct. 15 -- Militias allied with Iraq's Shiite-led government roamed roads north of Baghdad, seeking out and attacking Sunni Arab targets Sunday, police and hospital officials said. The violence raised to at least 80 the number of people killed in retaliatory strikes between a Shiite city and a Sunni town separated only by the Tigris River.
The wave of killings around the Shiite city of Balad was the bloodiest in a surge of violence that has claimed at least 110 lives in Iraq since Saturday. The victims included 12 people who were killed in coordinated suicide bombings in the strategic northern oil city of Kirkuk.
"This has pushed us to the point that we must stop this sectarian government," Ali Hussein al-Jubouri, a Sunni farmer in Duluiyah, said as he searched for the body of a nephew reportedly killed in the violence around Balad.
The slaughter came as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday renewed pledges by the Iraqi government to break up the militias, and as al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups declared a new Islamic republic in the western and central parts of the country.
The violence around Balad, a Shiite enclave in a largely Sunni region, began Friday with the kidnapping and beheading of 17 Shiite farmworkers from Duluiyah, a predominantly Sunni town. Taysser Musawi, a Shiite cleric in Balad, said Shiite leaders in the town appealed to a Baghdad office of Moqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shiite cleric, to send militiamen to defend local Shiites and to take revenge. Sadr's political party is a member of a Shiite religious alliance that governs Iraq.
Shiite fighters responded in force, local police said. Witnesses said Shiite fighters began hunting down Sunnis, allegedly setting up checkpoints in the area to stop travelers and demand whether they were Shiite or Sunni.
By Sunday afternoon, 80 bodies were stacked in the morgue of the Balad hospital, the only sizable medical center in the region, physician Kamal al-Haidari said by telephone. Most of the victims had been shot in the head, he said. Other hospital officials said some of the bodies had holes from electric drills and showed other signs of torture. The majority of the victims were believed to be from Duluiyah.
The hospital received calls from residents who said more bodies were lying in the streets, but workers were unable to pick them up, Haidari said. Witnesses arriving at the hospital also reported seeing bodies in the roads, he said.
Most Sunni families fled Balad, 1st Lt. Bassim Hamdi of the city's police force said by telephone. He said armed outsiders wearing black, apparently Shiite militiamen, were patrolling the streets in pickup trucks. Four mortar rounds also hit the city Sunday but caused no casualties, he said.
Balad was calm by late afternoon, Hamdi said, but heavy gunfire continued outside town.
"The situation outside of Balad is really bad," the police lieutenant said.
Across the river, police Maj. Hussein Alwan said, commandos believed to be members of the Shiite Badr Organization entered Duluiyah. The organization, also known as the Badr Brigade, is a militia of the other largest Shiite religious party in Iraq's government, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Alwan accused members of al-Qaeda in Iraq of setting off the violence and then standing by as Sunni civilians were killed in retaliatory attacks.
"When the commandos of the Badr Brigade entered the town, we did not see Qaeda fighting them. They were only spectators to see how the Sunnis are being slaughtered," he said.
In tiny Sunni towns throughout the area, Sunni men and boys as young as 10 took up arms to defend against any Shiite militias entering, said Khaled al-Jubouri, a Sunni sheik in Duluiyah. Jubouri said that he had declined a request for peace talks with the Shiite elders of Balad and that he wanted the Shiite militiamen surrendered to Sunni authorities and an apology.
By late Sunday, residents were saying that no American forces had intervened, despite some earlier reports that they had. U.S. military spokesmen did not immediately respond to a midafternoon request for clarification.
In Baghdad, Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Kareem al-Kinani said Iraqi reinforcements had been sent to the area, but he denied that any forces of Iraq's Shiite-dominated police had sided with militias.
Iraqi police often are accused of working with the Shiite militias in attacks on Sunnis. The Interior Ministry denies the allegation.
Maliki, in a nationally televised speech, used the one-year anniversary of a referendum on a U.S.-backed constitution to renew a pledge to disband militias. "The government is determined to disband the militias," he said. "Weapons should be only in the hands of the government."
Further demonstrating the growing fragmentation in Iraq, a bloc of Sunni insurgent groups marked the anniversary by declaring a separate Islamic republic in Iraq, stretching from the western province of Anbar to Baghdad, Kirkuk and other parts of the north. The announcement was made by a spokesman for the Mujaheddin Shura Council, an umbrella organization of insurgent groups that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq, and aired by al-Jazeera satellite television.
The statement noted the creation of a separate Kurdish republic in northern Iraq and a push by some Shiite parties for a separate republic in the south. The Shiite region, with the aid of Iran, had been "protecting militias with black hearts and minds that have delved deeply into the killing, torturing and displacing of the Sunnis, our people," it said.
A key Sunni bloc, the Muslim Scholars Association, denounced the declaration, as did some Sunni insurgent groups, including the Islamic Army, which said in a statement that it was not an enemy of the country's Shiites and was against the breakup of Iraq.
A report released by the U.S. Department of Defense in late August said there were 10 times as many sectarian attacks in July as there were in January in Iraq.
In Washington, Anthony Cordesman, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said by telephone: "If you total up the number of people that are being killed, that are being wounded, that are being displaced and are being forced to leave the country, and the zones in which there is major civil conflict . . . trying to declare there isn't a civil war borders on the absurd."
No major figure in the Bush administration or the military has defined the conflict as a civil war, although Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the second-ranking U.S. military commander in Iraq, warned this summer and fall that Iraq could descend into civil war and that militias were pushing it in that direction.
Other violence Sunday included a one-hour series of closely timed bombings that killed 12 people in the northern oil city of Kirkuk. Police Brig. Serhad Qadir said targets included the local headquarters of the Facilities Protection Service, a little-regulated government guard service that has become one of the largest armed forces in Iraq.
A suicide attacker managed to get a refrigerated truck laden with bombs into the headquarters compound, killing five people, Qadir said. Another bomb exploded near a girls' high school, killing two students and wounding 25, he said.
Kirkuk, the center of one of Iraq's largest oil reserves, is the scene of an intense rivalry between Kurds and Arabs. A referendum set for next year is to determine whether control of the city is given to a separate federal region held by Kurds in the north or stays with the Arab center and south.
Seven Iraqis were killed by a bomb in a failed assassination attempt against an Interior Ministry official in Baghdad.
The U.S. military announced that three American soldiers were killed Saturday when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb south of Baghdad and that two U.S. Marines were killed Sunday in Anbar. The deaths raised to at least 51 the number of U.S. troops killed so far this month, putting October on track to be one of the deadliest months in the war for American troops.
In Baghdad, the chief prosecutor trying Saddam Hussein and seven members of his toppled government in a Shiite massacre in the 1980s said a date for a verdict would be set Monday. The former Iraqi leader faces possible hanging for allegedly engineering the killing of 148 people from the village of Dujail after a failed attempt on his life in 1982. The prosecutor, Jaafar al-Mousawi, said he expected the verdict to be announced in 21 days.
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.