BAGHDAD -- Mystery and dread shrouded a freshly discovered mass grave site filled with the remains of at least 50 and perhaps as many as 100 people, some of them children, in a river valley northeast of Baghdad.
Iraqi police announced the discovery yesterday after conducting a raid in the area and stumbling upon the badly decomposed bodies a day earlier. The dead were buried in one of the many fruit, date and palm orchards that line the Diyala River near the town of Khalis, just north of the provincial capital of Baqouba.
Iraqis long associated mass graves with the atrocities of former President Saddam Hussein's regime, including large-scale executions of Kurdish and Shiite Muslim civilians suspected of sympathizing with anti-government rebels in the 1980s and 1990s.
But in the five years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, mass killings also became a tactic in sectarian warfare between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs that threatened to break the country apart. U.S. and Iraqi officials said yesterday that they had not confirmed the identity of the victims in the newly found grave.
"The skeletal remains appear to have been in the grave for a long time, and we have not yet determined who might be responsible for their death and burial," Maj. Winfield Danielson, a U.S. military spokesman, said by e-mail.
But Iraqi police and residents say they believe they were killed and buried in the past five years. An Iraqi security official who saw the grave site said the bodies appeared to have been dumped over a period of time, rather than all at once, and that only 13 had been excavated so far.
Some residents suspect the site was a dumping ground used by Shiite Muslim militias disposing of remains of Sunni victims. Authorities arrested the mayor of Khalis last week on suspicion of participating in such activities. The town is considered to be a hub of Shiite militias associated with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, although the outlying countryside is mostly under the sway of Sunni extremists.
The area was once a stronghold of Saddam's Baath Party, but Shiite militiamen largely took control over the mostly Sunni inhabitants in 2006, said Khaled Abed Rahman, 35, a local high school history teacher.
"Sometimes during the hard days, they established checkpoints while wearing police uniforms and detained people based on their [sectarian] identities," he said.
The perpetrators might have been groups associated with the Sunni insurgent organization al-Qaida in Iraq. Two years ago, Sunni insurgents declared the province part of a self-styled caliphate and launched a campaign of kidnapping and assassination.
Daily violence continues in Diyala province, a troubled patchwork of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish hamlets abutting the Iranian border. Police said five people were killed yesterday when two roadside bombs exploded minutes apart along a well-traveled route through Wajihiyah, about 15 miles east of Baqouba.
A U.S. soldier was killed and another injured in an explosion while conducted operations in Diyala on Friday, the military said in a statement released yesterday.
In Baghdad, authorities discovered the bullet-riddled bodies of four Iraqi males, and south of the capital, gunmen shot dead an official of the country's main Shiite political party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, or SIIC.
In the southern city of Basra, hundreds of demonstrators loyal to SIIC demonstrated for better law enforcement in order to quell what they called an increase in kidnappings and assassinations.
Borzou Daragahi and Saif Rasheed write for the Los Angeles Times.