Gunmen have assassinated many prominent Shia leaders during the past five years in or around the holy city of Najaf, on the Euphrates, where many of them lived.
Iraqi exiles say they were the victims of government death squads and the executions are an attempt to divert attention from the government's responsibility for the killings.
In a statement carried by all the Iraqi newspapers yesterday the General Directorate of Security said the men "were executed on 13 March ... after they were found guilty by the Iraqi authorities and were sentenced to capital punishment."
The executions follow the killing in an ambush of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr in Najaf last month.
His death triggered rioting in Shia towns in Iraq, which were bloodily quelled by the security forces. Iraqi troops are reported to have sealed off Najaf in the last few days.
The executed men confessed to killing two other leading ayatollahs last year: Mutarda Bujerdi and Ali al-Gharawi. Both were shot in separate attacks. They are also alleged to have admitted to trying to kill Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, another leading Shia cleric, in 1996. He was not hit but one other person died in the shooting. The men were not charged with the murder of Ayatollah Sadr.
The endemic use of torture in Iraqi prisons means confessions are easily extracted.
The Shia holy cities of Najaf, Kufah and Karbala in the mid-Euphrates region are heavily policed by the security services. It is unlikely that any gang of assassins could operate there except on government orders.
Although more than a hundred Shia clergy disappeared during a Shia uprising of 1991, the present assassination campaign against the clerics only started in 1993. It is probably motivated by President Saddam Hussein's belief that the popularity of the Shia clergy posed a threat to his regime. Religious leaders loyal to Ayatollah Sadr have been arrested over the last month and religious organisations he established dismantled.
There are reports of scattered guerrilla action in Shia areas of southern Iraq carried out by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is based in Iran. This may indicate that Iran is more willing to let guerrillas cross its border, but they are unlikely to make headway against the government's overwhelming military superiority.
President Saddam's determination to dispose of all possible resistance leaders may have been strengthened by the growing confrontation with the US and Britain. Diplomats in Baghdad say that the low-level air war by the allies against Iraqi air defences may be causing less damage than claimed.Reuse content