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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Targeted Killings Surge in Baghdad

Nearly 4,000 civilian deaths, many of them Sunni Arabs slain execution-style, were recorded in the first three months of the year.

May 07, 2006|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — More Iraqi civilians were killed in Baghdad during the first three months of this year than at any time since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime -- at least 3,800, many of them found hogtied and shot execution-style.

Others were strangled, electrocuted, stabbed, garroted or hanged. Some died in bombings. Many bore signs of torture such as bruises, drill holes, burn marks, gouged eyes or severed limbs.

Every day, about 40 bodies arrive at the central Baghdad morgue, an official said. The numbers demonstrate a shift in the nature of the violence, which increasingly has targeted both sides of the country's SunniShiite sectarian divide.

In the previous three years, the killings were more random, impersonal. Violence came mostly in the form of bombs wielded by the Sunni Arab-led insurgency that primarily targeted the coalition forces and the Shiite majority: balls of fire and shrapnel tearing through the bodies of those riding the wrong bus, shopping at the wrong market or standing in the wrong line.

Now the killings are systematic, personal. Masked gunmen storm into homes, and the victims -- the majority of them Sunnis -- are never again seen alive.

Such killings now claim nine times more lives than car bombings, according to figures provided by a high-ranking U.S. military official, who released them only on the condition of anonymity.

Statistics obtained at the Baghdad morgue showed a steady increase in the number of shooting deaths and other types of targeted killings over the last year, with a stunning surge in March, after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shiite Muslim shrines in the country.

The morgue logs every autopsied body, cataloging each with a folder and pictures. Two officials at the morgue, the director and the head of statistics, provided the numbers and descriptions for this report.

On a recent day, coffins were stacked against the wall outside the morgue, waiting to be filled. Every half hour or so, police officers arrived, unloading bodies from their pickup trucks. Each time, crowds of people rushed forward to see whether their missing relatives were among them.

But even the grim morgue statistics -- 3,472 violent deaths in Baghdad from January through March -- do not present the full picture of the violence in the capital.

That number does not include those killed in bombings or during gunfights between insurgents and security forces because they are generally are not brought in for autopsy at the central morgue. At least 351 civilians were killed in bombings across the capital during the first three months of the year, according to calculations based on daily reports by hospital and police officials.

Those reports, considered conservative, did not include slain Iraqi security forces, Iraqis killed by U.S. or Iraqi forces, and Iraqis killed outside the capital.

Obtaining accurate numbers from the Health Ministry or the 18 major hospitals serving Baghdad proved difficult, because officials at all tiers of government routinely inflate or deflate numbers to suit political purposes.

The figures obtained from numerous other sources, however, show the sectarian nature of a conflict that is increasingly targeting civilians.

Numbers obtained from officials at the cemetery in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, where the vast majority of Shiites are laid to rest, provided a benchmark to compare the numbers of Shiite and Sunni victims in Baghdad.

In the Najaf cemetery, 1,582 people from throughout the country were buried in the first three months of the year. Included in that figure are also unclaimed bodies -- some of them probably those of Sunnis.

That number, compared with the 3,472 violent deaths in Baghdad, provides additional evidence that the majority of those killed have been Sunnis, because it is still less than half the total of civilian deaths in the capital.

In addition, there are far more Shiites in Iraq than Sunni Arabs -- and so the deaths among Sunnis appear to be disproportionate to the population.

In the Sunni cemeteries serving Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, demand for tombs is so high that people are buried between old graves or at the edges of the burial grounds. Near the gate of one Sunni cemetery tucked inside the Ghazaliya neighborhood, a sign proclaims, "Fee for burial -- only 175,000 dinar," or about $120.

Sunni leaders allege that police officers and special commandos, most of whom are Shiites, operate death squads that target Sunnis in a campaign of sectarian cleansing.

Shiite politicians say criminals steal or buy official uniforms, then terrorize the capital in the guise of security forces. U.S. military officials lay the blame on Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, saying he is trying to provoke a civil war.

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