Relatives and neighbours in mourning are convinced they were killed by government-linked Shia death squads they say are behind corpses that turn up nearly every day in and around the capital - two more on Friday. Now some Sunnis are vowing to take action to protect themselves.

 

At least 539 bodies have been found since Iraq's interim government was formed on 28 April - 204 in Baghdad, according to an Associated Press count.

 

The identities of many are unknown, but 116 are known to be Sunnis, 43 Shias and one Kurd. Some are likely victims of crime - including kidnappings - rampant in some cities and as dangerous to Iraqis as political violence.

 

The count may be low since one or two bodies are found almost daily and are never reported.

 

Accusation

 

Both Sunnis and Shias accuse one another of using death squads - and the accusations are deepening the Sunni-Shia divide at a time when mistrust is already high over a new constitution that Iraqis will vote on in eight days.

 

Shias overwhelmingly support the charter, Sunnis oppose it, saying it will fragment Iraq.

 

Iraqis are to vote on the new
constitution in a referendum

Shia deaths are generally attributed to Sunni fighters, who hit Shia sites with bombings and shootings, but also carry out targeted slayings, leaving groups of Shia bodies to be found later.

 

Fighters have disguised themselves as police - most recently in an attack last week south of Baghdad in which they dragged five Shia teachers and their driver into a school and shot them to death.

 

But there have been several cases of Sunni Arabs who turn up dead in large groups after being taken by men claiming to be Interior Ministry forces.

 

The largest group of bodies found outside Baghdad was 36 Sunnis discovered on 25 August in a dry riverbed near Badrah, close to the Iranian border, after being kidnapped in Baghdad.

 

The grisly finds have led Sunnis to believe that Shia Muslims who dominate the government and the Interior Ministry are waging a quiet, deadly campaign against them.

 

But the Interior Ministry denies any role and blames fighters using stolen police equipment.

 

Slogan-shouting

 

On Friday, in Baghdad's Umm al-Qura mosque, mourners for the 22 men shouted slogans against the Badr Brigade, a Shia militia linked to one of the main parties in the government, accusing them in the slayings.

 

The desiccated, unrecognisable bodies lay in wooden coffins, each with a photo of the victim attached. Mourners wept. "Why were they killed? They had done nothing wrong," wailed one man.

 

Mourners in Baghdad shouted
slogans against the Badr Brigade

The bodies were found on 27 

September in the same Badrah region near the Iranian border outside the southern town of Kut, where they had lain for weeks exposed to the sun.

 

They had been shot, some in the head. Some were blindfolded. All had their hands bound by ropes, plastic or shiny metal handcuffs. The site was 161 km from where the men had last been seen.

 

On 18 August, some 50 vehicles full of men in Interior Ministry uniforms swept into Baghdad's Iskan neighbourhood just after dawn and surrounded several streets, going into houses and grabbing the 22 young men - some of them pairs of brothers, said Jamal Amin Mustafa, 60, who lives nearby and was at Friday's funeral service.

 

"They took them from their bedrooms," said Mahmoud al-Sumeidaie, the cleric who delivered prayers during the service. "We blame the government, which came to save us from Saddam's terrorism but has brought terrorism worse than Saddam."

 

The story is echoed by Tahir Dawood, who on 28 September went to the Baghdad morgue to identify his two younger brothers and five of his cousins whose bodies - bound, blindfolded and shot - were found that morning dumped in a lot near his neighbourhood of Hurriya.

 

Construction workers

 

The seven, all construction workers, had been taken from their homes the previous day before dawn, by a large force of men in police uniforms who told families they were from the Interior Ministry, Dawood told AP. He has since fled Baghdad with most of his immediate family.

 

At a three-day wake held last weekend, a cousin of the victims, Khaled al-Azawi, fumed.

 

Al-Kubaisi accused government
of aiming to liquidate Sunnis

He accused the Interior Ministry of waging "genocide against the Sunni Arabs in Iraq with the knowledge of the American forces". He and Dawood said the slain men had no connection to Sunni fighters - or any link to the government or US forces that might make them targets for fighters.

 

"We have no other choice but to take up our rifles and protect ourselves," al-Azawi said.

 

Sheikh Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, a prominent cleric with the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, accused the government of aiming to "liquidate Sunnis" to knock them out of the political process.

 

He, too, blamed the Badr Brigade, the military wing of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shia party in the government.

 

Some officials have accused al-Kubaisi's group of links to fighters.

 

Denial 

 

Maj. Gen. Adnan Thabit, the commander of the Interior Ministry's special forces - including the special unit Wolf Brigade - denied any government role in any slayings. He said fighters were donning police uniforms and carrying out the killings to enflame divisions.

 

"The ministry is studying new measures to control the work of the shops which deal with military and police uniforms in Baghdad" to ensure they don't fall into fighters' hands, he told AP. He also said ministry forces would take local clerics or respected figures with them when they carry out raids in sensitive areas.

 

"We swear we will retaliate now for the killing of my brother and my cousins"

Saadon al-Azawi,
Brother of victim

But the idea of self-defence among Sunnis appears to be catching on. After the killings of Dawood's relatives, Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie - head of the Sunni Endowment, the government agency in charge of the upkeep of Sunni mosques and shrines - called for forming local forces in Baghdad's neighbourhoods to defend them against suspicious interlopers.

 

That raises the prospect of yet another semi-organised armed force in Iraq's patchwork of armed men - one that could easily turn from self-defence to revenge.

 

"We swear we will retaliate now for the killing of my brother and my cousins," said Saadon al-Azawi, whose brother was among those killed in Hurriya.