Iraqi troops unearthed a mass grave with the remains of 12 people including a paramedic who disappeared more than a year ago, officials said Monday, the latest grisly discovery in a former stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Morgue workers wearing masks to protect them from the stench of decomposing bodies dug through bags of bones and tattered clothes as they sought clues to the identities of those killed.
More than 100 bodies, including women and children, have turned up since October in the remote desert terrain surrounding Lake Tharthar, a man-made body of water straddling the predominantly Sunni provinces of Anbar and Salahuddin about 60 miles northwest of Baghdad.
Most of the victims have no IDs, but officials have said they were likely abducted and murdered by insurgents.
The U.S. military has claimed significant progress since last summer in forcing al-Qaida in Iraq out of Anbar province with the help of Sunni tribal leaders and local officials. Iraqi forces have taken advantage of these recent security gains to step up patrols in areas previously considered no-go zones.
But Lake Tharthar, which used to be a resort area popular with officials under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, has remained one of the hardest areas to control. The newly discovered mass grave was located between the lake and the Anbar city of Fallujah.
Two of the bodies found Sunday were beheaded, according to an official at Fallujah General Hospital, where the remains were taken. Hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to release details of the discovery, said some appeared to have been killed as recently as four months ago, while other deaths dated to 18 months ago.
A Health Ministry card that belonged to the missing paramedic provided a rare solid identity clue.
Larger graves found last month
Two other mass graves were found near the lake last month — one containing 40 bodies and another with 29. Twenty-five other bodies, some decapitated, were found in October, and authorities said the victims apparently died within the previous three months.
Authorities have also found mass graves in other parts of the country where violence has decreased. Seventeen corpses were unearthed last month at a site near Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
The areas in which the bodies were found are both former al-Qaida strongholds, suggesting the terror network was behind the killings.
Shiite militia fighters also abduct rivals and shoot them execution-style, but the numbers of those deaths have fallen sharply since radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered a cease-fire among his fighters in August.
American commanders have been cautious about their recent successes as Iraqis and U.S. troops continue to face attacks.
Oil guards among new victims
At least 20 people were killed or found dead on Monday, including the mutilated bodies of four oil facility guards who were kidnapped the day before, police said. Col. Khali al-Zubaie, a spokesman for the Iraqi army in Kirkuk, said a fifth man who disappeared with the guards remained missing.
U.S. troops killed one Iraqi and wounded three Monday north of Baghdad after opening fire at a vehicle they said failed to stop at a checkpoint following an operation targeting al-Qaida in Iraq, the military said.
In Baghdad, gunmen in two cars fired on a Sunni Interior Ministry aide, Maj. Gen. Fauzi Hussein Muhammed, as he returned home, killing him and wounding his driver, police said.
U.S. officials are pushing Iraqi politicians to take advantage of the overall decline in violence to forge power-sharing agreements among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
Raid on Sunni politician's office
In a reminder of the obstacles, Iraqi security forces on Monday carried out the second raid in a week against the office of one of the country's most powerful Sunni politicians.
Officials said the troops found bombs, grenades and other explosives in the basement of Adnan al-Dulaimi's office, five days after the initial raid, in which the hard-line leader's bodyguard was found with the keys to an explosives-laden car in his pocket.
Al-Dulaimi, who leads the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni parliamentary bloc, frequently accuses Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government of favoring the Shiites.
Several Shiite politicians have previously called for legal action against al-Dulaimi for what they said was his incitement of sectarian strife, suggesting that the latest events could be part of efforts to build a case against him.
On Monday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, expressed "dismay" over the government's treatment of al-Dulaimi, urging officials to avoid "making accusations without legal basis."