Mass grave find fuels sectarian tension in Iraq

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The Independent Online

Iraq moved closer to sectarian civil war as police found the bodies of 87 men killed in Baghdad, many of them showing signs of torture. The dead appear to be Sunni Muslims killed in retaliation for the bombs that slaughtered 58 people and wounded 200 when they exploded in crowded markets in the strongly Shia area of Sadr City.

Some 29 dead men were found yesterday buried in a pit in a playing field. "Some children were playing soccer and they smelt something strong and the police were notified," said a police spokesman. Members of a Shia militia dug in a pit to unearth the bodies. They found that the men had been gagged and bound and were in their underwear. Many of them had been tortured before being shot dead.

The Interior Ministry spokesman, Lt-Col Falah al-Mohammedawi, said that the men appeared to have been killed in Kamaliyah, a mostly Shia district in east Baghdad, about three days ago. Local residents offered sheets to cover the bodies as they were dragged from the earth.

A photographer for the Associated Press agency who took pictures of the grave was warned not to publish them. The location of the grave suggests that the dead men were Sunni.

The fear now in Baghdad is that the bombs detonated by Sunni insurgents in Shia neighbourhoods are leading to immediate retaliation against Sunnis.

Until a bomb attack destroyed the holy Shia shrine in Samarra on 22 February, Shias had been restrained in their reaction to repeated attacks on them since 2003. They were also cautioned against being provoked into seeking vengeance by influential Shia clerics such as the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Since the Samarra bomb the Shia willingness to heed his calls for patience is much reduced.

In another atrocity, 15 bodies of men who had been strangled were found in an abandoned minibus parked between two Sunni districts in west Baghdad. In Sadr City, a further four men were shot in the head and their bodies hanged from electricity pylons. Elsewhere in Baghdad another 40 bodies, both Shia and Sunni, were found said Lt-Col Mohammedawi.

To try to reduce sectarian killings, the Interior Ministry is to enforce a curfew from 8pm tonight to 4pm tomorrow to coincide with the meeting of parliament.

Although it is three months since the parliamentary election on 15 December, a government has still to be formed. The US, backed by Kurds, is trying to see a national unity government installed but even if one is eventually chosen it is likely to be fragmented. The Shias, 15 to 16 million strong out of an Iraqi population of 26 million, accuse the US, the Sunni and Kurdish parties trying to rob them of the fruits of their election victory in two elections last year. The Kurds want to displace Ibrahim al-Jaafari as Prime Minister, saying he has ignored agreements with them, particularly on the fate of Kirkuk. The US wants to end control of the Interior Ministry, which has 110,000 men under arms, by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose Badr Organisation militia, in the guise of police commandos, is accused of killing Sunnis.

The US would also like to find a place in government for Iyad Allawi, its favourite secular nationalist, who did poorly in the December elections. This likely to be resisted by the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who was targeted by the US army in Najaf in August 2004 when Mr Allawi was prime minister. After the tit-for-tat killings of the past few days there was little traffic in Baghdad yesterday. In Sunni districts there is terror of the police commandos, who are seen as death squads capable of arresting, torturing and killing Sunnis simply because of their sectarian identity.

Mr Sadr may be the key to creating a new government since it was his support which determined that Mr Jaafari would be the candidate of the Shia coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance. He has so far called for calm and unity in the wake of the attacks at Samarra and in Sadr City. He has also derided Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, for saying the American military would not intervene to stop a civil war in Iraq. "May God damn you," said Mr Sadr of Mr Rumsfeld. "You said in the past that civil war would break out if you had to withdraw, and now you say that in face of civil war you won't interfere."

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