The family of 12-year-old Hani Saadoun has been traumatised by that reality since his tortured body, mutilated by electric drills, was found on Tuesday. They had been in a state of fear since he failed to return home for lunch a day earlier.

Gunmen in three cars cornered him as he headed to work, helping out at his father's car park, interior ministry sources and relatives said.

The Shia family started panicking when he had not turned up by Monday evening. By the time they learned of his fate on Tuesday, he was just another statistic in Iraq's mortuaries.

The sense of loss mixed with shock as details of his brutal ordeal, shared by many dozens every day, became clear.

Saadoun's body was found dumped in southern Baghdad's violent, mostly Sunni Arab, district of Dora. It bore the marks of sectarian killings that have increased since the bombing of a Shia shrine in February.

The youngster, with a bullet hole in his head and another through the chest, was blindfold and his hands bound. He had been whipped with cables, tormented by electric drills and his body dragged through the streets behind a car.

Possible causes of death

There was no way of ruling out other possible reasons for his death. He could have been the victim of one of Iraq's bloody tribal feuds or criminal gangs. But one conclusion predominates in a country becoming familiar with corpses dumped by the road.

The boy's uncle, a television cameraman well known among Baghdad journalists, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said: "This was definitely a sectarian killing.

"Witnesses told us that gunmen in three Opel cars grabbed him at a checkpoint. We know he was tortured and we know they dragged him through the streets by a rope and dumped him."

At Saadoun's funeral, women in traditional black Shia shawls wailed, as his mother, Fatima Oraybi, stared up at his crude wooden coffin on the roof of a car.

"Oh my son," she cried.

Shocked

Others could not understand why he was killed. Drilling victims of kidnappings and killings is not unusual in Iraq, but the torture of such a young boy left his relatives shocked.

Amir Mohammad, the boy's cousin said: "What did he do? He was 12. He was not a general or a minister." 

Saadoun's uncle said police and troops refused to help recover the body because Dora was too dangerous.

"His father had to round up relatives and people from the neighbourhood to get the body," he said. "He had nothing to do with sectarianism or politics. He was just a boy."