Bodies Found in Najaf Court

Iraqi police discovered at least 10 bodies in a building housing a maverick religious court run by rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's (search) followers here Friday and said they were victims of the court's summary brand of justice.

Al-Sadr's followers said those killed were comrades who fell in the three weeks of fighting between al-Sadr's militia and U.S. and Iraqi troops.

The stench of the corpses led police, who were deployed Friday in Najaf's Old City (search), to the bodies, said Brig. Amer al-Daami (search), Najaf's deputy police chief.

"We found bodies, burnt and rotten," he said.

An Associated Press reporter saw about 10 charred and bloated bodies covered in blankets in the court building, including one of an elderly woman. It was not immediately clear how they died.

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.

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 in the recent fighting in the city.

Police took control of the Old City on Friday after al-Sadr's followers on Friday handed over control of the Imam Ali Shrine, located in another part of the neighborhood, and pulled armed fighters off the streets in a peace deal aimed at ending the crisis in Najaf.

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.

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.

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.