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86 men are found slain execution-style in Iraq

Killings suspected as retaliation in cycle of rising sectarian strife

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi authorities discovered the bodies of at least 86 shot or strangled men across the city yesterday, most with their hands tied and many of them tortured. They included 27 corpses in one of the first mass graves to be found in the capital since the US invasion three years ago.

The day's high toll -- of execution-style killings involving large numbers of victims, not the bombing deaths that have characterized insurgent attacks and dominated violence in Iraq for more than two years -- appeared linked to escalating cycles of sectarian slaughter since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in the city of Samarra. The toll since the bombing is nearing 1,000, according to government figures; four Iraqi and international officials tracking the toll say it topped that figure in the first week after the Samarra bombing.

Yesterday's body count went largely unremarked upon in public statements by Iraqi leaders, including Shi'ite and other political figures who convened in a heavily guarded meeting in Baghdad meant to help kick off efforts to form a government, one day shy of three months after national elections. A Defense Ministry spokesman, Major General Abdul Aziz Mohammed, said the day's victims included Shi'ites and Sunnis and called the killings ''a premeditated attempt to incite civil war."

The mass grave was found in a former Gypsy enclave bordering a heavily Shi'ite neighborhood on the eastern edge of Baghdad. A police spokesman, Colonel Hadi Hasan, said the victims were men aged 25 to 40. All were found with their hands tied and wearing civilian clothes, Hasan said. They appeared to have been killed between two and 10 days ago, police said.

Children playing soccer discovered the grave by its smell, police separately told the Reuters news agency.

In the west Baghdad neighborhood of Khadra, near a school, police found a minibus containing the bodies of 10 men. ''Some of them were shot and some were choked by ropes," Hasan said.

Another minibus in the western Sunni neighborhood of Amriya contained the corpses of eight men, and Hasan said all had been bound, blindfolded, and shot.

In Rustamiya, a mixed Sunni-Shi'ite neighborhood in southern Baghdad, authorities found five men shot dead and covered by blankets, Hasan said.

Authorities picked up the bodies of 11 men in the mixed southern neighborhood of Madean. All wore the dishdasha, or traditional Arab dress, Hasan said.

In Kasrah Atash, in southern Baghdad, killers left the bodies of seven men by the side of the road. The men had been tortured and shot, Hasan said, adding that a piece of paper left with their bodies stated: ''The fate of traitors."

Iraqi police also found more than 15 corpses Tuesday morning in Sadr City, according to Captain Ahmed al-Ani, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. Sadr City is a trash-strewn, dusty urban district that is home to 2 million Shi'ites, overwhelmingly loyal to Moqtada Al-Sadr, a young Shi'ite cleric and militia leader.

The timing and means of yesterday's killings raised suspicions that some of the deaths were retaliatory attacks for bombings Sunday evening that killed 58 people in Sadr City. The concerted series of bomb attacks was one of the deadliest of the war in the Shi'ite enclave and suggested Sunni insurgents or their allies had made their first inroads into the district, which is policed by Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, whose members number in the thousands.

After the first wave of violence that followed the Feb. 22 mosque bombing, survivors accused black-clad Mahdi fighters of taking away men who were later found dead in Baghdad's morgue. Officials with Sadr's organization denied any role by his militia, and Sadr political leaders and spokesmen yesterday denied there had been any killings in Sadr City on Monday or yesterday.

The number of execution-style deaths reported by police and news media usually are only a fraction of the total, according to morgue statistics that have shown such killings doubling since the middle of last year. International officials say the morgue -- and the Health Ministry that oversees it and is controlled by Sadr's bloc -- has been increasingly reluctant to disclose the number of execution-style killings, which are often linked with Shi'ite militias or the security forces of the Shi'ite-controlled Interior Ministry.

On a main road a few blocks from the mass grave, Haider Latif Ugaili, an 18-year-old black-market gasoline vendor, pointed to the spot a few feet away where he said police in pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles had come to collect three blanket-covered bodies. They also retrieved either two or three from the other side of the road, he said. A laborer at the site, Ali Hussein, 19, gave the same account separately.

''It's become normal to find bodies," Ugaili said. ''It's every other day."

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