BAGHDAD — The discovery Sunday of nearly three dozen bodies -- all Iraqi men apparently abducted and slain execution-style -- is the latest grisly episode in an escalating sectarian conflict fueled by this nation's raging insurgency.
Scores of corpses have been found in recent weeks in various locations -- floating in the Tigris, dumped in ditches, abandoned along roads fringed with date palms.
On Sunday, 13 blindfolded and bound men were found shot to death in one garbage-strewn Baghdad lot, authorities said. At least 11 more corpses were found at another site in the capital, and another 11 shooting victims were discovered in a chicken-farming district south of the capital.
The slayings had the nowfamiliar marks of sectarian violence: The group of 13 bodies found in Baghdad was left in a ditch in the same Shiite Muslim district where 14 corpses, said to be those of members of a Sunni Arab clan, were discovered last week; one official said the latest bodies had the type of long beards characteristic of some religious Sunnis.
The 11 other bodies found in Baghdad were discovered in an eastern district about 11:30 p.m. Sunday, an Interior Ministry official said. No other details were available.
The 11 victims found south of Baghdad, appeared to be Shiites ambushed by Sunni guerrillas on the perilous roads between the capital and the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
On Saturday, the bodies of 10 Iraqi soldiers were found in Ramadi, news services reported. The city in the western province of Al Anbar is an insurgent stronghold where the largely Sunni Arab population has chafed at the deployment of Shiite recruits.
Three and a half months after Iraq's election, celebrated worldwide as an inspiring case of popular will overcoming violence, sectarian tensions are mounting.
The landmark vote and the newly appointed government, rather than bringing Iraqis together, appear to have further frayed Iraq's already tenuous social fabric. Assassinations and executions now regularly accompany the suicide bombings that grab more headlines.
In separate incidents Sunday, gunmen killed Sheik Qassim Gharawi, a top aide to the Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and Hamid Mukhlis Duleimi, a Sunni cleric associated with the Muslim Scholars Assn., a leading Sunni group. Gharawi was slain in a drive-by shooting; Duleimi was killed at his home by men who arrived in the type of SUVs favored by security forces, an Interior Ministry official said.
Relentless insurgent attacks on Shiite neighborhoods, mosques, religious festivals and on the Shiite-dominated security services have killed hundreds and strained the patience of a people liberated from decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein. The dictator's Baathist regime favored the Sunni Arab minority who are now believed to dominate the insurgency.
Now many Shiites are openly pleading that their top clerics, the Najaf-based marjaiyah, allow them to seek retaliation.
"If the marjaiyah will give us one sign, we will exterminate the Sunnis from Hilla to Mosul," said Muayad Kadhim Abady, a driver from the hardscrabble southern village of Ghamas, home to 19 fishermen found slain in a soccer stadium in the Sunni Arab city of Haditha late last month.
No one is sure how long Sistani can hold back the Shiite masses from exacting wholesale retribution -- in fact many Sunni Arabs fear it has already begun.
Newly emboldened police commando squads have raided Sunni mosques and arrested Sunni religious leaders, who call them Shiite avengers.
A car bomb exploded April 30 outside the Baghdad headquarters of a Sunni political organization, the National Dialogue Council. Members blame the Shiite-dominated security forces or allied paramilitaries, but the bombers may have been Sunni insurgents outraged at the council's perceived collaboration with the new government.
"The definition of civil war is when the Shiites on the ground start to hit back," said Hussein Shahristani, a top Sistani aide and first deputy speaker of the National Assembly.
"People are hurt very deeply and feel they should be allowed to defend themselves. Of course they feel they are capable of defending themselves. There is hardly an Iraqi household without weapons of all sorts."
U.S. and Iraqi authorities have said that one of the goals of the insurgency is to spark a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. But officials downplay the possibility of outright sectarian war -- characterizing some of the recent violence as tribal feuds and expressing confidence in what they call Shiite "restraint."
The Shiite "political and religious leadership is being very, very firm on not doing tit-for-tat violence, because they know that will quickly disintegrate into at least a two-way civil war," said a senior U.S. official, who declined to be named. "And they don't want that."