Iraqi officials discovered 50 bodies, many of them blindfolded and with their hands bound, in an agricultural area outside a city south of Baghdad on Wednesday, raising concerns over a possible sectarian killing amid the battle against a Sunni insurgency.
The lightning sweep by the militants over much of northern and western Iraq the past month has dramatically hiked tensions between the country's Shiite majority and Sunni minority. At the same time, splits have grown between the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.
In an address on Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused the Kurdish zone of being a haven for the Islamic extremists and other Sunni insurgents. He did not provide any evidence, and the claims are likely to only further strain Baghdad's ties which the Kurds, whose fighters have been battling the militant advance in the north.
The bodies, all of them with gunshot wounds, were found in the predominantly Shiite village of Khamissiya outside the city of Hillah, located some 60 miles south of Baghdad, said military spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim. He said an investigation was underway to determine the identities of the dead as well as the circumstances of the killings.
The dead were all men between the ages of 25 and 40, and it appeared they had been killed a few days earlier and then dumped in the remote area, said a local police officer and a medical official.
While the motives remain unclear, such grisly killings harken back to the worst days of Iraq's sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007. At that time, with a Sunni insurgency raging, Shiite militias and Sunni militant groups were notorious for slayings of members of the other sect, and bodies were frequently dumped along roadsides, in empty lots, ditches and canals. As the levels of violence dropped over time, such discoveries became rare.
But sectarian tensions have soared once more, and authorities have once again begun to find unidentified bodies since the Sunni insurgent blitz began last month.
The area south of Hillah is predominantly Shiite, but there is a belt of Sunni-majority towns north of the city. On Wednesday, two car bombs exploded in a commercial area in the predominantly Shiite town of Mahaweel near Hillah, killing two people and wounding seven, police and hospital officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The militant surge is led by the Islamic State extremist group, but other Sunni insurgents have joined, feeding off the anger in their minority community against the Shiite-led government. On the other side, Shiite militias have rallied around al-Maliki's government to fight back against the militant advance.
In the far north, meanwhile, Iraq's Kurds have taken advantage of the mayhem in the country to seize disputed territory — including the city of Kirkuk, a major oil center — and move closer to a long-held dream of their own state.
Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, say they only want to protect the areas from the Sunni militants. Many of the areas have significant Kurdish populations that the Kurds have demanded for years be incorporated into their territory, making them unlikely to give them up. Last week, the president of the Kurdish self-rule area urged the region's lawmakers to "hurry up" and lay the groundwork for a referendum on independence.
These moves have infuriated al-Maliki, who is under pressure from opponents as well as former allies to step down.
Al-Maliki lashed out at the Kurds in his weekly televised statement Wednesday, saying "everything that has been changed on the ground must be returned" — a clear reference to the disputed territory that fighters loyal to the Kurdish regional government, which is based in the city of Irbil, have taken.
He even went a step farther, saying: "We can't stay silent over Irbil being a headquarters for Daesh, Baath, al-Qaida and the terrorists." Daesh is the acronym in Arabic for the Islamic State group, often used as a pejorative by its opponents, while the Baath was the party of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
But al-Maliki provided no evidence to back up his claims, which are sure to be rejected by Kurdish leaders in Irbil. Evidence on the ground also contradicts al-Maliki's allegations.
Kurdish peshmerga forces have clashed repeatedly with the Sunni militants led by the Islamic State extremist group in recent weeks. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have fled to the Kurdish-controlled areas to escape the militant onslaught.
Kurdish officials reached by telephone declined to comment on al-Maliki's remarks.
Shiite-dominated Iran, a close ally of al-Maliki, has also been helping Iraq's military — help that is believed to include military advisers.
This week, an Iranian military adviser who was helping coordinate among Shiite militias was killed by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, two Shiite militia commanders said Wednesday.
The officer was killed Sunday in Salahuddin province while helping organize Shiite militias in the defense of a revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
The militia commanders spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to brief the media.
Previously, only one Iranian had been confirmed killed in Iraq's recent crisis – a pilot who Iran's state news agency said died defending holy sites in Samarra. It was not clear how he was killed, or in what capacity in was fighting in Iraq.