BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP – Iraqi authorities discovered at least 87 corpses — men shot to death execution-style — as Iraq edged closer to open civil warfare. Twenty-nine of the bodies, dressed only in underwear, were dug out of a single grave Tuesday in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad.
Some of the bloodshed appeared to be retaliation for a bomb and mortar attack in the Sadr City slum that killed at least 58 people and wounded more than 200 two days earlier.
Iraq’s Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, meanwhile, told The Associated Press security officials had foiled a plot that would have put hundreds of al-Qaida men at critical guard posts around Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the U.S. and other foreign embassies, as well as the Iraqi government.
A senior Defense Ministry official said the 421 al-Qaida fighters were recruited to storm the U.S. and British embassies and take hostages. Several ranking Defense Ministry officials have been jailed in the plot, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that he had not received anything definitive on the report, but cautioned that earlier accounts are often adjusted later on.
“We’ve always known that there are people who have tried to infiltrate the various security forces and tried to get close access to places that they ought not to be,” he said. “There’s nothing new about that that I know of.”
Police began unearthing bodies early Monday, although the discoveries were not immediately reported. The gruesome finds continued throughout the day Tuesday, police said, marking the second wave of sectarian retribution killings since bombers destroyed an important Shiite shrine last month.
In the mayhem after the golden dome atop the Askariya shrine in Samarra was destroyed on Feb. 22, more than 500 people have been killed, many of them Sunni Muslims and their clerics. Dozens of mosques were damaged or destroyed.
Underlining the unease in the capital, Interior Ministry officials announced another driving ban, from 8 p.m. Wednesday to 4 p.m. Thursday to protect against car and suicide bombs while the Iraqi parliament meets for the first session since the Dec. 15 election.
After the driving ban was announced, the Cabinet said Thursday would be a holiday in the capital, presumably because residents would not be able to get to work. Restrictions on movement also had been put in place on the two weekends after the Samarra bombing in an attempt to quell the violence.
The most gruesome find Tuesday — the 29 bodies dressed only in underwear — was made after police, acting on a tip, discovered an 18-by-24-foot grave in an empty field in Kamaliyah, a mostly Shiite east Baghdad suburb, Interior Ministry official Lt. Col. Falah al-Mohammedawi said. He estimated the victims were killed about three days ago — before the Sadr City attack Sunday evening.
Residents watched, some covering their eyes in horror, others offering scarves and newspapers to cover the bodies as they were pulled from the grave.
An abandoned pickup truck containing 15 other bodies was found earlier on the main road between two mostly Sunni west Baghdad neighborhoods — not far from where another minibus containing 18 bodies was discovered last week, al-Mohammedawi said.
At least 40 more bodies were recovered elsewhere in Baghdad, in both Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, al-Mohammedawi said. Police found three other corpses dumped in the northern city of Mosul.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military reported the deaths of two more soldiers in fighting in Anbar province. The soldiers, assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, were killed Monday, bringing the number of U.S. military members killed to at least 2,310 since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Rumsfeld hinted that U.S. troop levels may increase slightly in Iraq in the coming days because of pilgrimages connected to the holiday of Ashura. The holiday, which ends March 20, includes pilgrimages to holy sites in Najaf and Karbala. Increased attacks marked the celebration during 2004 and 2005.
Rumsfeld said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, “may decide he wants to bulk up slightly for the pilgrimage.” He did not elaborate.
Scores of frightened Shiite families have fled predominantly Sunni parts of Baghdad in recent weeks, some at gunpoint. More than 100 families arrived between Monday and Tuesday alone in Wasit province, in the southern Shiite heartland, said Haitham Ajaimi Manie, an official with the provisional migration directorate.
More than 300 Baghdad families — 1,818 people — have taken shelter in the province after fleeing the capital, he said.
North of the capital, a roadside bomb exploded Tuesday among Shiite pilgrims headed on foot to the holy city of Karbala, killing one person near Baqouba, police said.
The sectarian violence has complicated negotiations for Iraq’s first permanent, post-invasion government. A caretaker government has been in charge since the December elections and U.S. and Iraqi officials fear the vacuum in authority has fueled the bloodshed.
Once parliament meets Thursday, it has 60 days under the new constitution to elect a president and approve the nomination of Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and his Cabinet.
After members of all the major Iraqi political blocs met Tuesday with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, no breakthrough was reported on solving the deadlock over the nomination of al-Jaafari to head a new government.
But in an interview with Fox television, U.S. Embassy Political Counselor Robert Ford seemed guardedly optimistic.
“I can’t say that we’ve had a breakthrough, but we had good talks today,” Ford said.
But Iraqis in the meeting said the sides were still so far apart that major Sunni politicians were again pressing for the new constitution be thrown out, despite its adoption late last summer and approval in a subsequent national plebiscite.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iraqi forces and civilians, as well as coalition forces, need to provide stability to allow the new government to do its work.
“The Iraqi people themselves are standing at a crossroads,” Pace said Monday night in a speech at the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, “and they are making critical decisions for their country right now about which road they’ll take.”