SUWAYRAH, Iraq — The young woman clad head-to-toe in black glanced through dozens of police mug shots of slain victims Thursday looking for signs of her husband, missing now for six days.
"We do not know what happened to him," said the woman, Fatima Radi, 28. "He is the father of two children."
Like others, she had come to a police station here where local authorities were trying to determine the identity of corpses found nearby in the Tigris River in recent weeks, a discovery that has elevated sectarian tensions and shaken the new Iraqi government even before it has finished forming.
Ferreting fact from rumor is never easy in the incendiary climate of contemporary Iraq, where political leaders on all sides have endeavored to use gruesome events for partisan advantage.
Shiite Muslims say the killings are part of a Sunni Muslim campaign of "ethnic cleansing," and Sunnis say the victims may include members of their sect detained by Shiite-dominated police forces. But interviews with officials, families of victims and other knowledgeable people in Suwayrah and in Baghdad have lent some measure of clarity to the murky and bloody rampage that police say has resulted in the discovery of at least 60 bodies in the muddy river here.
What has emerged is evidence of an intermittent series of sectarian killings that began more than a month ago, as Sunni Arab insurgents stepped up a brutal campaign of intimidation throughout the zone. Previously, Shiite officials had said the bodies resulted from a single episode of hostage-taking and a massacre in one town over the course of a few days.
Some victims, police say, may have initially been taken hostage. But police in Suwayrah say it is likely many were motorists passing through the area when stopped by masked men bearing Kalashnikov rifles at impromptu checkpoints.
Assailants were believed to have later executed those taken away -- a chillingly common practice here -- and dumped their remains in the river, where they washed downstream to this agricultural center. Despite the assertions Wednesday of transitional President Jalal Talabani that all the victims and killers had been identified, the great majority of the dead remained anonymous.
"Most of the bodies cannot be identified," said the Suwayrah police commander, Lt. Col. Khalil Ubaid Kadim Ajeeli. Police in Suwayrah, who are closest to the case, also say there are few clues as to the identity of the assailants.
Police have tried to photograph the face of each corpse, though in some cases, the dead are barely recognizable. But those identified to date, by photos, rings, clothing or other details, hail from a variety of towns and cities, including Kut, 70 miles to the southeast; Baghdad, 35 miles northwest; and from as far away as Basra, 250 miles to the southeast on the Persian Gulf.
Shiite politicians in Baghdad had declared that all or most of the victims came from the nearby village of Madaen, a Sunni-dominated speck on the map north of here about halfway along the road to Baghdad. The village's name has become synonymous with mass hostage-taking and slaughter in political discourse in the capital.
The widespread presumption is that those slain were singled out because they were Shiite, although Sunni insurgents have also been known to target fellow Sunnis and others for different reasons, such as collaborating with U.S.-led forces. A major Sunni group in Baghdad on Thursday voiced fears that some of those killed may have been Sunnis.
A public funeral procession was held Thursday in the Shiite holy city of Najaf for 19 people described as victims of the killings. The decomposed and disfigured bodies were driven through the streets in an open-bed truck as onlookers gawked at the remains. Prominent religious and political representatives joined relatives of the dead in paying their respects.
Tensions are likely to rise further today when the killings serve as a central topic of sermons in Shiite and Sunni mosques across Iraq.
Shiite leaders say the slayings are the handiwork of Sunni Arab insurgents bent on driving away Shiites who have lived alongside them for generations. The leaders describe a reign of terror in both the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys south of Baghdad, where a series of religiously mixed towns form the frontier before the Shiite heartland to the south.
"We consider this an example of ethnic cleansing," said Jawad Maliki, a leading member of the Shiite coalition that holds a slim majority of seats in the new National Assembly. "They would like to create an insurgent belt around Baghdad."
Many Shiite families have abandoned the region because of the violence that has overtaken the mixed communities south of Baghdad, Maliki and other Shiite leaders say.
But some Sunni Arabs worry that their own people, arrested by Shiite-dominated police and military forces in the area, may be among the dead.