Remains of possibly dozens of people believed slain in sectarian violence were unearthed Saturday from a mass grave in a former al-Qaida stronghold in southern Baghdad — the third such find in Iraq this month.
Also Saturday, an Iraqi television station reported one of its reporters had been kidnapped — the latest in a grim series of attacks that has made Iraq among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists.
The badly decomposed remains were found in Baghdad’s mostly Sunni Dora neighborhood by Sunnis who have turned against al-Qaida in Iraq, police said. They were discovered in an area overlooking the main highway leading to Shiite shrine cities in the south.
Sunni extremists would often waylay travelers along that road, kidnapping and killing Shiites.
The remains were placed in black plastic bags and transferred to a Shiite mosque in Dora, according to a police officer at the mosque. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information.
An Associated Press photographer at the Kazimain mosque counted 33 plastic bags, and police said each bag held the remains of one victim. But the remains were so badly decomposed that it was impossible to verify the number.
Some of the bags were opened, revealing body parts, bones and scraps of clothing. One of the bags contained a prosthetic leg.
Relatives of people who had been missing in the area crowded into a courtyard outside the mosque, where the remains were laid out. But none of the remains had been identified by late Saturday. A woman in a black abaya wept as the bags were opened.
Earlier this month, American and Iraqi officials said they found 29 bodies near Lake Tharthar north of Baghdad in the former al-Qaida stronghold of Anbar province. The next day, another 17 victims were discovered in a brushy area west of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Officials said they believed the bodies were those of people who had been seized at fake checkpoints and murdered because of their sectarian affiliation.
Last Tuesday, the International Red Cross said at least 375,000 people were missing in Iraq, many of them victims of Sunni and Shiite extremists who kidnapped and murdered members of the rival Islamic sect.
Official: Iran 'showing more restraint'
The wave of sectarian slaughter has receded somewhat in recent months as more and more Sunnis have turned against al-Qaida and other extremist groups and as Shiite militias have toned down their operations, perhaps fearing a backlash in the Shiite community.
The presence of more American soldiers in the streets of the capital since the troop buildup this year has also discouraged the worst of the abuses by sectarian death squads.
On Saturday, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh attributed some of the improved security to Iran, saying the Iranians were “showing more restraint in sending people and weapons to destabilize Iraq.”
Nevertheless, kidnappings and killings are continuing.
The satellite television station al-Baghdadiyah said one of its reporters, 28-year-old Muntadhar al-Zaidi, disappeared Friday. A colleague phoned al-Zaidi around noon Friday, and a stranger answered his cell phone with the words “Forget Muntadhar,” according to an editor at the station.
“This is the act of gangs, because all of Muntadhar’s reports are moderate and unbiased,” the editor told The Associated Press by telephone. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears for his own safety.
Al-Baghdadiyah broadcasts from Cairo, Egypt, and is often critical of the Iraqi government and the U.S. military presence here. It is perceived as pro-Sunni. The station has already lost two reporters to the violence.
Iraqi journalists working for local or international media frequently come under threats from extremists because of their reporting or their affiliation with foreign organizations.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 123 journalists and 42 media support workers — translators, drivers, fixers and guards — have been killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003. About 85 percent of those deaths were Iraqis, the group said.
In addition, the organization says at least 51 journalists have been kidnapped in Iraq since 2004. Neither CPJ count includes al-Zaidi, whose whereabouts were unknown.
U.S. troops kill, detain suspected insurgents
Elsewhere, Iraqi soldiers Saturday raided a Sunni village about 40 miles north of Baqouba looking for al-Qaida militants, the Iraqi army said. Two soldiers and four militants were killed in the fighting.
The U.S. military said American troops killed seven suspected insurgents and detained 10 in raids across central and northern Iraq.
In Mosul, police detained 13 members of a new militant group, Jihad and Liberation, provincial police said. The group was arrested when Iraqi soldiers raided their hideouts in the eastern part of the city.