BAGHDAD — Sunni Arab political leaders said Thursday that nearly 90 Sunnis had been reported abducted or killed over the last two days by groups with possible ties to Iraq's Shiite Muslim-led Interior Ministry forces.
In one incident, 25 men just released from detention allegedly were whisked away by gunmen in sport utility vehicles. The Sunni leaders also said the bodies of 20 people abducted April 4 by security forces had been found in Baghdad.
The allegations are difficult to confirm, and the political groups making the claims previously have exaggerated figures and accounts. Two ranking members of Iraq's security forces said they knew nothing about the fresh reports of abductions and deaths.
But the charges, broadcast over radio stations and posted on political websites, probably will further inflame tensions between Iraq's Sunni minority and Shiite majority. The reports come as each sect's political leaders try to depict the other side as responsible for sectarian violence in an attempt to gain leverage in the country's power struggle.
"We swear that after today, denouncing and condemning is not enough, and tongues that speak will not be pleased unless hands take action after the new tremendous crime committed by security apparatuses, a crime that shakes consciences, wets eyes and wakes from sleep," the Muslim Scholars Assn., a leading Sunni clerical group, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, a U.S. soldier was killed in Baghdad when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb southwest of the city and a Marine was reported killed by "enemy action" a day earlier near the capital, the military said. American forces, which had scaled back operations in the capital, have boosted patrols by 45% in the last two months in an attempt to stem sectarian violence.
"The increase is to give more visible presence of the security forces inside the streets of Baghdad," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, spokesman for U.S. forces, told reporters Thursday. Insurgents "want to stop the formation of a national unity government by triggering sectarian violence.... The enemy is still there, but we are taking the fight to the enemy, specifically in Baghdad."
Later Thursday, on Baghdad's northern outskirts, an explosion in a crowded marketplace in a poor Shiite neighborhood killed at least 15 people and injured 27. It was the latest in a series of attacks targeting Shiite civilians and houses of worship. A triple suicide bombing after Friday prayers last week left scores dead at Baghdad's Bratha Mosque, and security officials braced for more violence today.
Attempts to form a government remained stalled over Sunni and Kurdish opposition to the Shiite bloc's nomination of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari to continue in his post. Shiite parties challenged a decision by the parliament's acting speaker, a Sunni, to convene the parliament next week before politicians had worked out a government.
Sunnis say the Shiite-led government has allowed official security agencies to operate death squads, and point to incidents such as those they allege occurred over the last two days.
Sunni politicians charge that the 25 Sunni prisoners were held for months by an elite Interior Ministry unit called the Wolf Brigade and were abducted by unidentified gunmen shortly after being released.
Ten other Sunni prisoners, who were being held in the headquarters of a police special forces unit, escaped and relayed their accounts to political officials, said Saleh Jabouri, who heads the human rights division of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group.
According to accounts of family members collected by the party Wednesday and Thursday, the men were hauled into three white SUVs with tinted windows minutes after they were dropped off by bus in northern Baghdad. One person said he watched as gunmen beat the released prisoners with pistols and forced them into awaiting cars.
"The moment the detainees came out, they [the gunmen] appeared from nowhere," the witness said in a telephone interview, requesting that his name not be published out of fear of reprisal. "One of the armed men swore at them and ordered them into the cars."
Adnan Jabouri, a ranking Interior Ministry official, said he did not know of the incident but confirmed that some detainees recently had been released.
The 20 bodies discovered in recent days were mostly those of Sunnis; relatives and morgue officials said they were found scattered around Baghdad. The victims were among 63 people allegedly abducted in a police raid on the morning of April 4 in Dora, according to the statement issued by the Muslim Scholars Assn.
A police source said at least four unidentified bodies were discovered Thursday in different parts of the capital.
A special correspondent contributed to this report.