BAGHDAD, Iraq – The bullet-riddled bodies of 14 Sunni Arab men purportedly seized by police a week ago were found dumped in Baghdad in the latest bout of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence in the capital, a top Sunni group said Saturday.
The discovery threatens to further polarize Iraq's ethnic and religious groups at the same time as Iraqi officials are trying to form a national unity government, which the United States hopes will lead to a curbing of this country's rampant bloodshed.
Sunni Arab leaders protested the killing, saying the victims were rounded up at a mosque on the northern outskirts of Baghdad last week and were found by relatives late Friday in the same area.
The bodies were taken to a morgue to be collected by their families, the Association of Muslim Scholars said in a statement. Two bodies of a father and son were taken to the headquarters of another Sunni political group, the National Dialogue Council, and displayed to reporters.
Council head Khalaf al-Ilyan accused Interior Ministry forces of raiding the mosque, arresting a group of worshippers before taking them to an unknown location and killing them.
"There is an escalation in organized assassinations by parties belonging to government security forces," said Dr. Salman al-Jumaili, a senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of two Sunni parties comprising the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in the new parliament.
"There is an organized and well-trained force at the Interior Ministry conducting this sectarian cleansing against us."
Al-Jumaili threatened to carry through on a warning by his party's leader to instigate wide-scale "civil disobedience" if attacks against Sunni Arabs continue.
On Wednesday, Islamic Party leader Tariq al-Hashimi threatened to call a popular "uprising" unless Interior Minister Bayan Jabr was dismissed and Iraqi soldiers were sent to Baghdad neighborhoods to protect Sunnis against police forces, who Sunnis accuse have been infiltrated by Shiite militiamen.
Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal, the ministry's head of intelligence, said the 14 bodies had all been shot multiple times. He could not confirm that government forces had detained them.
"We are investigating the residents reports that these men were arrested in raids in that area but we have nothing so far," Kamal told The Associated Press.
No further details were immediately available. Batches of bodies have repeatedly been discovered in various parts of Baghdad gagged, bound and shot repeatedly.
Sunni Arabs accuse Shiite-backed security forces and militias of kidnapping and killing ordinary Sunni Arabs as well as clerics. Jabr, a prominent Shiite leader, has denied targeting Sunni Arabs.
Saddam Hussein's ouster led to a fall in prominence for the once powerful Sunni Arab community, from whose numbers now spawn the country's raging anti-U.S. insurgency, which has also targeted now dominant Shiite Muslims.
Shiites, long oppressed under Saddam, now fill many layers of the country's police and military. Prominent Shiites say they want to maintain control of the interior and defense ministries when the next government is formed, despite Sunni Arab opposition to Shiite handling of security forces.
Protests continued also over caricatures of the prophet Muhammad that were originally published in a Danish newspaper, with about 500 people rallying in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, and demanding that the European Union apologize for the offensive drawings.
The protest was organized by followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been among the most outspoken Iraqi clerics on the issue, which has enflamed Muslims worldwide.
Elsewhere, the military announced Saturday that U.S. soldiers and Marines found a large weapons cache west of Fallujah, the 11th such discovery by the same troops in 13 days.