Revenge-seeking militiamen seized six Sunnis as they left Friday prayers and burned them alive with kerosene in a savage new twist to the brutality shaking the Iraqi capital a day after suspected Sunni insurgents killed 215 people in Baghdad's main Shiite district.
Iraqi soldiers at a nearby army post failed to intervene in Friday's assault by suspected members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia or subsequent attacks that killed at least 19 other Sunnis, including women and children, in the same neighborhood, the volatile Hurriyah district in northwest Baghdad, said police Capt. Jamil Hussein.
On Saturday, coalition forces killed 10 insurgents and an Iraqi civilian in three simultaneous raids north of Baghdad and destroyed a factory used to make roadside bombs, the U.S. military said. The civilian was a teenager fatally wounded in the fighting in the city of Taji. A pregnant woman also was hurt.
New method of brutality
Most of the thousands of dead bodies that have been found dumped across Baghdad and other cities in central Iraq in recent months have been of victims who were tortured and then shot to death, according to police. The suspected militia killers often have used electric drills on their captives' bodies before killing them. The bodies are frequently decapitated.
But burning victims alive introduced a new method of brutality that was likely to be reciprocated by the other sect as the Shiites and Sunnis continue killing one another in unprecedented numbers. The gruesome attack, which came despite a curfew in Baghdad, capped a day in which at least 87 people were killed or found dead in sectarian violence across Iraq.
In Hurriyah, the rampaging militiamen also burned and blew up four mosques and torched several homes in the district, Hussein said.
Residents of the troubled district claim the Mahdi Army has begun kidnapping and holding Sunni hostages to use in ritual slaughter at the funerals of Shiite victims of Baghdad's raging sectarian war.
Such claims cannot be verified but speak to the deep fear that grips Baghdad, where retaliation has become a part of daily life.
President Jalal Talabani emerged from lengthy meetings with other Iraqi leaders late Friday and said the defense minister, Abdul-Qader al-Obaidi, indicated that the Hurriyah neighborhood had been quiet throughout the day.
But Imad al-Hasimi, a Sunni elder in Hurriyah, confirmed Hussein's account of the immolations. He told Al-Arabiya television he saw people who were drenched in kerosene and then set afire, burning to death before his eyes.
Two workers at Kazamiyah Hospital also confirmed that bodies from the clashes and immolation had been taken to the morgue at their facility. They refused to be identified by name, saying they feared retribution.
And the Association of Muslim Scholars, the most influential Sunni organization in Iraq, said even more victims were burned to death in attacks on the four mosques. It claimed a total of 18 people had died in an inferno at the al-Muhaimin mosque.
The extreme violence continued to tear at the Iraq's social fabric even after the government had banned pedestrians and cars from the streets and closed the international airport until further notice in anticipation of a storm of retaliation for the five bombings and two mortar rounds which killed 215 in Sadr City on Thursday.
The airport closure forced Talabani to delay his planned Saturday departure for Tehran for meetings with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian leader also invited Syrian President Bashar Assad, but it now appeared he would not attend.
The chaos also cast a shadow over the Amman, Jordan, summit next week between Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Bush.
Politicians loyal to radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to boycott parliament and the Cabinet if al-Maliki went ahead with the meeting. The political bloc, known as Sadrists, is a mainstay of support for al-Maliki. The Mahdi Army is the organization's armed wing.
Sadrist lawmaker Qusai Abdul-Wahab blamed U.S. forces for Thursday's attack in Sadr City because they failed to provide security.
"We say occupation forces are fully responsible for these acts, and we call for the withdrawal of occupation forces or setting a timetable for their withdrawal," Abdul-Wahab said.
A U.S. helicopter patrolling above Sadr City came under intense fire from the ground and shot back, wounding two people Friday night, according to police 1st. Lt. Qassim Mohammed and witnesses.
The U.S. military said the helicopter had taken fire from six rockets launched from one site and destroyed the launcher. The military statement did not address whether there were casualties.
White House: No change in plans
White House spokesman Scott Stanzil said there was no change in the president's plans to meet with al-Maliki on Wednesday and Thursday.
Al-Maliki is increasingly at odds with the Bush administration for his refusal to disband militias and associated deaths squads that are believed responsible for killing thousands of Sunnis since an al-Qaida attack last February blew up the Golden Dome Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Mortar fire rained down again on Sunni Islam's holiest shrine in Baghdad, the Abu Hanifa mosque in the Azamiyah neighborhood, wounding at least five people. Several mortars crashed into the area Thursday night within hours of the attacks in Sadr City, one of them puncturing the dome of the shrine and damaging the interior, including its library.
Also, militia gunmen raided a Sunni mosque in the Amil section of west Baghdad, killing two guards, according to police 1st Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq.
And in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, Sunni insurgents blew up the dome of the important Shiite mosque of leading cleric Abdul-Karm al-Madani.
In the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, 23 people were killed and 43 wounded when explosives hidden in a parked car and in a suicide belt worn by a pedestrian detonated simultaneously outside a car dealership, said police Brig. Khalaf al-Jubouri.
Altogether, 56 people were killed across in Iraq on Friday, and police said they found 31 bodies dumped throughout Baghdad, most of them tortured before being shot.
Cleaning up the remains
In Sadr City, cleanup crews continued removing remains of the dead from wreckage of the car bombs, and tents were erected throughout the ramshackle district for relatives to receive condolences.
Hundreds of men, women and children beat their chests, chanted and cried as they walked beside vehicles carrying the caskets of their loved ones toward the holy Shiite city of Najaf for burial. Despite Baghdad's curfew, al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, ordered police to guard the processions.
As the funeral processions reached the edge of Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad, the cars and minivans left most of the mourners behind and began the 100-mile drive south to Najaf, a treacherous journey that passes through many checkpoints and areas controlled by Sunni militants in Iraq's so-called "Triangle of Death."