NAJAF, Iraq – In an open air room at an abandoned religious court run by rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's (search) followers, 10 bloated, darkened bodies lay covered in bloodied blankets.
Iraqi police discovered the corpses Friday, saying they were victims of the court's summary brand of justice. Al-Sadr's followers said they were victims of the intense gun battles fought in Najaf's Old City (search).
An Associated Press reporter saw 10 bodies, including one of an elderly woman. It was not immediately clear how they died, but several had large gaping wounds that appeared to have been caused by shrapnel.
Some were blackened. Half the skull of one of the dead men was missing and another man appeared to have suffered massive wounds to his stomach. None of the bodies was dismembered, except one, which had been beheaded.
Pools of dried blood were visible on the floor near the bodies. On the walls were framed photos of al-Sadr and his father, a senior cleric who was killed by suspected agents of Saddam Hussein (search) in 1999.
The stench of the corpses led police, who were deployed Friday in Najaf's Old City, to the bodies, said Brig. Gen. Amer al-Daami, Najaf's deputy police chief.
"We found bodies, burnt and rotten," he said.
Al-Daami said some of the bodies were those of police officers, and others belonged to civilians. Before the fighting began Aug. 5, authorities accused the militants of taking police hostage in the city and of killing and mutilating some of them.
Al-Sadr's office in Najaf had set up the court, which ordered arrests and meted out punishments outside of religious and legal authorities. Local Iraqi officials have in the past demanded it be shut down and all its prisoners freed.
Police said the bodies belonged to the victims of the court. But a court official, who identified himself only as Hashim, said the corpses belonged to militants killed during three weeks of fierce fighting between al-Sadr's militiamen and U.S.-Iraqi forces.
"They were martyrs from the Mahdi Army, who were bombed by planes and tanks," Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, an al-Sadr aide in Baghdad, told Al-Jazeera television.
During the fighting, the militants had set up their own informal health clinics and morgues. The U.S. military has said it killed hundreds of militants in the fighting, though the militants say their casualty figure was far lower.
The two-story courthouse is made up of 15 rooms filled with desks, computers and books. The bodies were located in an open air area within the courthouse compound.
The courthouse is located about 150 yards from the Imam Ali Shrine (search). The area around the shrine compound had been heavily bombed by U.S. forces over the last several weeks.
It was not known if U.S. forces had visited the court, and the military had no immediate comment.
The courts have arrested and interrogated hundreds of people on charges including selling alcohol and peddling music deemed immoral. Punishments included flagellation.
Al-Sadr's followers have been accused of using the court to settle scores with opponents or to threaten people.