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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

A Time of Killing, and Little Time for Why

Nearly 150 bodies have surfaced in Iraq this week, officials say. The toll is too heavy, the suspects too many, to bother with inquiries.

September 16, 2006|Solomon Moore and Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Some are largely intact -- the flesh torn only where the bullets entered. Others are perforated by drill holes or slashed into ragged pieces. They lie in dusty ravines and pools of sewage, deserted roads and abandoned torture chambers.

Under normal circumstances, the bodies that appear every day in Iraq -- 142 over the last five days, including more than 30 on Friday, Interior Ministry officials said -- might be examined for clues by someone interested in solving the crimes. There is no shortage of potential evidence: handcuffs pulling the inert shoulders taut, blindfolds, a crowd of witnesses who saw the victim before masked assailants gunned him down in the street or stuffed him into a police car.

But in Iraq, there seems to be neither interest nor time for that. There are too many bodies and too many killers with too many ties to the nation's warring political factions.

Usually, the best anyone can do is point to a vague culprit -- Shiite militias, Sunni insurgents, criminals and gunmen. The murderers are often as nameless as the victims.

A senior American official said U.S. personnel were investigating sites where corpses were recently found. U.S. officials are concerned that the killings may have been committed by Shiite-dominated government security forces in areas already secured by U.S. and Iraqi troops -- inside jobs, in effect.

As part of a Baghdad offensive that started this summer, about 8,000 U.S. troops have stepped up patrols with Iraqi forces in an effort to bring order to the city's neighborhoods. But the Iraqi forces, particularly those controlled by the Interior Ministry, which include police and paramilitary units, are deeply intertwined with Shiite militias that have been linked to scores of extrajudicial killings.

The investigation has uncovered scant information, the U.S. official said. Victims are often found far from where they were kidnapped or killed, and forensic capability in Iraq is virtually nonexistent.

Iraqis have expressed skepticism about the security plan. And few seem to believe that investigations are necessary to unmask the killers. Many here seem to have a theory about who they are and why the violence increased last week. Generally, those theories support their political views.

Maj. Gen. Ali Hussein Kamal, intelligence chief of the Interior Ministry, said Sunni Arab terrorists and Baathists were to blame.

Ammar Wajeeh, a Sunni Arab political party member, blamed Shiite militias. "The militias are still terrorizing southern and northern Baghdad," he said.

Sheik Abdul Zahra Swaidi, a representative of the anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr, blamed Americans. "The occupiers are inventing the crisis," he said. "They are behind many explosions; we have proof of that. They are doing this to stay in Iraq."

The U.S. commander in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, said Friday that he believed some of the body counts coming from Iraqi officials in recent days had been exaggerated. Chiarelli acknowledged an increase of violence, but said the stepped-up security effort in Baghdad had brought down the overall number of deaths in the capital.

"Some of the numbers that I've seen reported, and what happened in Baghdad yesterday ... I cannot prove those numbers are correct, and again, they seem inflated, from my standpoint," Chiarelli said at a news briefing at the Pentagon.

"For some, I'm sure that there are agendas that are being worked, and I understand that," he said.

Iraq's Health Ministry, which oversees the Baghdad morgue, is largely controlled by officials loyal to Sadr, and American officials have suggested that the ministry is elevating death totals to undermine confidence in the U.S. security plan.

Iraqis also disagree with one another, and with American officials, over why the violence jumped so noticeably in recent days.

Some U.S. officials believe that Sunni Arab extremists have increased attacks to send a message to American and Iraqi troops that no matter how much security is bolstered, the insurgency will thrive.

Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie said the killing of leaders of the group Al Qaeda in Iraq had hurt the organization, but might also have inspired it to ratchet up operations to prove it remained powerful.

"We believe that Al Qaeda every now and then tries to create a spectacular attack with a psychological impact to prove that they're still around and able to fight," Rubaie said.

But Suha Azzawi, a member of Iraq's parliament, said she suspected the death toll was being driven up by Shiite militias killing detainees to cover their tracks. Over the last year, several secret prisons run by militias have been uncovered.

"I think the most reasonable justification is the recent security sweeps in different areas of Baghdad, like Sadr City, Adhamiya and elsewhere, forced those who are detaining abducted Iraqis to kill them to avoid being captured," she said.

Whoever is behind the deaths and whatever their motives, they clearly have had an effect on U.S. policy. In a White House news conference Friday, President Bush acknowledged that violence in Iraq had dashed his hopes of being able to reduce the number of U.S. troops there. Troop levels now stand at 147,000, up about 20,000 from early in the summer.

"The unity government's intact. It's working forward. They're making tough decisions," Bush said. But, he added, the violence had prevented Gen. George Casey, the overall U.S. commander in Iraq, from recommending troop cuts.

"Hopefully, Casey would come and say, 'You know, Mr. President, there's a chance to have fewer troops there,' " Bush said. "It looked like that might be the case until the violence started rising in Baghdad."

solomon.moore@latimes.com

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Saif Hameed and Suhail Ahmad in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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