Growing Sectarian Strife Roils Baghdad

A series of violent events on Sunday point to growing sectarian strife between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. North of Baghdad, 30 bodies were discovered — most of them beheaded — and U.S. forces clashed with a Shiite militia surrounding a Baghdad mosque.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Debbie Elliot. There were ominous developments in Iraq today. U.S. and Iraqi forces clashed with a Shiite militia at a mosque in Baghdad. To the north, Iraqi forces discovered 30 bodies, most had been beheaded. NPR's Anne Garrels has been following these developments and joins me now. Hi, Annie.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Hello.

ELLIOTT: What do we know about the clash between U.S. troops and the Shiite militia?

GARRELS: Well, according to Iraqi police, a joint U.S.-Iraqi force this evening tried to investigate reports that a Shiite militia had some kind of makeshift interrogation room in a mosque in North East Baghdad. Clashes subsequently broke out as you noted, with the Mahdi army, the militia loyal to radical nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who's virulently anti-American. Police report 18 were killed inside the mosque. The Sadr spokesman says there were indeed 18, he says the men were unarmed.

But details are still sketchy. Now, Sunni Muslims have repeatedly said Shiite militias are responsible for sectarian killings and in the wake of the Shiite shrine bombing last month, eyewitnesses have repeatedly said that men in the signature black uniforms of the Mahdi Army have attacked Sunni mosques and attacked Sunnis. Sadr has denied this and has publicly appealed to Iraqis for calm, warning them not to be drawn into a civil war, so you've got mixed reports.

ELLIOTT: And not the discovery of these bodies, that seems to be something that's happening quite frequently there.

GARRELS: Oh, Debbie, it's a daily occurrence. Hundreds of bodies, if not more, have been found just in the last month. Many have had their hands bound with hideous signs of torture. My first call of the morning now is to the morgue, to find out how many unidentified bodies have been dumped in and around the city. With this new wave of sectarian violence, where anyone can be a target, residents of Baghdad are blocking off their neighborhoods even more than they had already.

The fear is really that anybody is a target. And one other thing, in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, today, authorities say more than 900 Shiite families have arrived from other areas because of sectarian threats, and officials say they're making preparations for as many as 3,000 more families seeking sanctuary. As for the bodies found up north of Baghdad, the 30 bodies, most of which were beheaded, we don't know why that happened. It could be Sectarian violence or it could be murders by Sunni led insurgence for other reasons.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Anne Garrels, reporting in Baghdad. Thank you, Annie.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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