Sectarian death squads kill scores in Iraq
Government seemingly powerless to stop violence sweeping country
Namir Noor-Eldeen / Reuters
Women cry while waiting to claim the bodies of two relatives killed in a Sunday night mortar attack, outside the Yarmouk hospital morgue in Baghdad.
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Oct. 16: Dozens are killed in sectarian attacks in Balad, a town 50 miles north of Baghdad, while bombings in and around Baghdad kill up to 10 people. NBC's Jane Arraf reports.
Updated: 8:04 a.m. CT Oct 16, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq - A four-day rampage of sectarian fighting raged unchecked Monday an hour's drive north of Baghdad and at least 91 people were dead, police and army officials said.
The authorities appeared unable or unwilling to stop the bloodshed in Balad and its environs that may set the standard for the building inter-communal conflict should it spread further and the pace hasten, which appeared likely.
The Balad fighting exploded Friday with the discovery of the headless bodies of 17 Shiite workers discovered in an orchard near the city, 50 miles north of Baghdad.
Shiites swiftly retaliated by setting up roadblocks in the predominantly Shiite city, ringed by Sunni-dominated villages, towns and farmland. Revenge-seekers caught, took away and shot Sunnis caught in the snare, guilty or not, witnesses said. All refused to give their names for fear of retribution.
'They burned everything'
Mohamed Ali Hamid, a 35-year old Sunni taxi driver, said he walked for two hours with 20 family members on Sunday to reach the nearby Sunni town of Duluiyah. Shiite militiamen accompanied by police Sunday had given them just two hours to leave, he said.
"They said, 'You are Sunnis and have no place here at all,'" Hamid said. "They burned everything related to Sunnis and we were forced to leave everything behind," he said by phone from a police station where he had been taken after Duluiyah law enforcement picked the group up along the highway.
Duluiyah and Balad sit on opposite sides of the Tigris River.
Hamid said local Sunnis had nothing to do with the beheadings and had lived in peace with their Shiite neighbors for decades. He blamed militants backed by Iran's Shiite government for the bloodshed.
"There are hidden hands behind this who want Shiites and Sunnis fight each other, they are the Iranians," Hamid said.
Iraq's government appeared powerless to stop the fighting, demonstrating its failure to form political consensus that could rein in sectarian rivalries and establish meaningful security. On Sunday, the government indefinitely postponed a much-anticipated national reconciliation conference aimed at bridging religious and ethnic divides.
About 70 percent of Balad's 80,000 people are Shiite, slightly higher than the nation as a whole. Shiite-Sunni fighting has raged increasingly out of control since a bombing in February destroyed one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in Samarra.
Hamid said that he had seen at least six dead bodies in the street and claimed Shiite militias were seizing injured Sunnis from the Balad hospital. Both militiamen and police were roaming the town in police vehicles, brandishing their assault rifles and chanting anti-Sunni taunts, he said.
Al-Sadr's militias involved?
A Duluiyah police officer said members of the Mahdi Army militia loyal to anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were leading the violence aided by local police.
Bodies of victims of Balad's Sunni minority lay in the streets, while elderly people and women were being forced to leave the city, said the officer, who spoke on condition on anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Scores of terrified Sunnis had fled to Duluiyah and other neighboring towns, the policeman said.
Ahmed Ali, a 32-year-old Sunni truck driver who was trying to reach his wife's family in Balad, said Sunni families in neighboring towns have armed themselves to fight-off militia raids.
He said he'd been told his in-laws were killed on Friday.
"Militiamen gave them just two hours to leave the house. But after half an hour, they broke into the house and killed four of them," Ali said.
An army officer at provincial headquarters said authorities have counted 74 Sunnis killed since Friday. Those included five who died when Sunni houses were attacked with mortars late Sunday, said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to media.
The recent spike in violence has also taken its toll on U.S. forces in the country, with the number killed so far in October surging past 50 over the weekend. Two Marines and a soldier were killed in fighting Sunday, bringing to ten the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq over the past three days.
Bombings in and near Baghdad, meanwhile, have killed 10 people, while 11 more bodies were found dumped in the capital.
In Suwayrah, 25 miles south of Baghdad, nine people were killed and 35 injured when a booby-trapped car exploded in a crowded market at about 11:00 a.m., the town's mayor, Hussein Mohammed al-Ghurabi, said.
Police earlier said ten people were killed and 48 injured in the attack, which set cars and shops aflame.
Bodies dumped in Baghdad
The bullet-riddled bodies of 11 men were found dumped in the capital overnight, two of them found in a trash pit in Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite slum of about 2 million people
The identities of the victims, estimated to be in their early 20s and found bound and blindfolded, were not known, police Capt. Mohannad al-Bahadli said.
Nine other bodies, similarly bound and shot, were found in other Baghdad districts, police said.
Each day in Baghdad brings the discovery of up to scores of such victims, most believed to have been pulled off the street or abducted from their homes by roving sectarian death squads.
Those killings have steadily worsened over recent months as Iraq's Shiite majority battles to assert its authority over the Sunni minority who held power under Saddam Hussein's former regime.
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