18 bodies found in Iraq
The bodies of 18 men, bound, blindfolded and strangled, were found in a Sunni Arab district of Baghdad, apparent victims of sectarian turmoil gripping Iraq and threatening the formation of a coalition government.
Three years after U.S. troops invaded to topple Saddam Hussein, the U.S. State Department said killings by the U.S.-backed government or its agents had increased in 2005 and that members of sectarian militias dominated many police units.
Iraq's Shi'ite interior minister, a hate figure for many Sunnis who accuse him of condoning death squads, escaped an apparent assassination attempt when a roadside bomb blasted his convoy. Minister Bayan Jabor, however, was not in his car.
In its annual report on human rights abuses worldwide, the State Department said: "Police abuses included threats, intimidation, beatings, and suspension by the arms or legs, as well as the reported use of electric drills and cords and the application of electric shocks."
Dozens of Iraqi private security guards were seized at their compound by men in police uniform on Wednesday, but in typical confusion Iraqi security officials contradicted each other over whether they were arrested or kidnapped.
Three senior officials in the Interior Ministry insisted no raid was authorised on the company in Baghdad. Two other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the private guards had been arrested by genuine police commandos.
The bombing of an important Shi'ite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22 has pitched Iraq towards civil war, unleashing reprisal sectarian killings and deepening the mutual suspicion between the country's majority Shi'ite Muslims and minority Sunnis.
The violence has complicated faltering efforts to form a government of national unity three months after elections. Iraqi leaders, struggling to agree on who should hold the top posts, are due to meet President Jalal Talabani on Thursday to decide on a way forward. Parliament is supposed to meet by Sunday.
The dumping of bodies bearing signs of torture and killed execution-style is a feature of the violence.
The 18 bodies discovered by U.S. troops in western Baghdad late on Tuesday had all been garrotted and had their hands bound with plastic ties, police and hospital officials said.
The victims, a mixture of middle-aged and young men in civilian clothes, carried no identifying papers, police said.
A policeman at the Yarmuk hospital morgue pointed to their clothing and long hair as an indication some may have been religious extremists linked to al Qaeda. Reuters reporters who saw the bodies said many appeared to be Iraqis.
Police sources said only one had so far been identified by a relative. He was a guard at an oil refinery in southern Baghdad.
The policeman at the hospital said many of the bloodied bodies appeared to have been beaten while some had small burn marks, suggesting they were tortured before being killed.
Senior officials, aware of the potential for sectarian anger if it becomes clear all are either Sunni or Shi'ite Muslims, made no formal comment on the religious identities of the dead.
Iraqi police said the bodies were dumped near the Amriya district, a stronghold of Sunni insurgent groups.
Sunnis have accused the Shi'ite-led government's police and other security forces of abducting and killing Sunni civilians -- an accusation Interior Minister Jabor and the police deny.
Interior Ministry vehicles normally used to transport Jabor and his aides were attacked as they left the ministry on Wednesday. A roadside bomb destroyed one car in the convoy, killing two and wounding five, a police source told Reuters.
It follows the assassination of the top Iraqi general in Baghdad, a Sunni, by a sniper in the capital on Monday. More than 500 people have been killed since the Samarra bombings, according to the most conservative official figures.
Despite the daily bombings and shootings there is a relative lull in the violence and officials have said the immediate crisis seems to be over -- for the time being at least.
But the U.S. ambassador conceded on Tuesday Iraq could still descend into civil war, saying Americans "opened Pandora's Box" when they toppled Saddam in 2003 and another incident like that in Samarra could push it to the brink of war again.
In political negotiations, Sunnis and Kurds refuse to accept Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari should stay on. His critics say he has failed to bring security or prosperity during the year in which he has been interim prime minister.
Posted by: Dan Darling 2006-03-09