RAMADI, Western Iraq, (REUTERS) – The bodies of 16 people who were killed execution-style have been discovered in western Iraq, witnesses said on Friday, the latest grisly killings fueling fears of civil war in Iraq.
Police said on Wednesday that 22 Iraqi soldiers from the mainly Shi”ite south were kidnapped after leaving their base in the town of Qaim, a stronghold of the Sunni Muslim insurgency near the Syrian border.
It was not immediately clear if the victims, who were in civilian clothes and left in two different locations near Qaim,were those soldiers. Many were blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs.
Eleven of the bodies were scattered in a gravel pit and five were left beside a desert road often used by soldiers. Two of the men were beheaded.
Al Qaeda”s group in Iraq said on Thursday it was holding 36 Iraqi soldiers hostage, not 22 as reported by police, and demanded the government free all women prisoners within 24 hours, according to a Web statement.
The Sunni Muslim group, which has often abducted and killed officials and soldiers, said the 36 were being questioned about their "crimes against Sunnis".
Officials in western Iraq have said the kidnapped soldiers were members of the once oppressed Shi”ite community, now dominant in Iraq after winning Jan. 30 elections.
Insurgents have kidnapped and killed scores of Iraqi soldiers.
Sunnis, powerful under toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, boycotted the elections and members of their community are leading an insurgency.
Suicide bombings and execution-style killings have escalated over the last few months, raising concerns that tensions between Shi”ites and Sunnis could push Iraq towards civil war.
Insurgents have stepped up attacks since a new Iraqi government was formed in late April, killing more than 800 police, soldiers, officials and civilians.