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Sandstorm aids militants in Green Zone attack

Militants fired a salvo of rockets or mortars at the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad on Sunday, while officials reported that Iraqi security forces had found more than 100 bodies in two mass graves.
APTOPIX Iraq Sandstorm
An Iraqi soldier uses a flashlight to signal cars to turn off their headlights as a sandstorm envelops Baghdad on Sunday. Khalid Mohammed / AP
/ Source: news services

Militants fired a salvo of rockets or mortars at the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad on Sunday, while officials reported that Iraqi security forces had found more than 100 bodies in two mass graves.

The militants apparently were taking advantage of a sandstorm that blanketed the Iraqi capital Sunday and grounded U.S. helicopters and drones that normally track their activities.

Fifty bodies were found in a mass grave in central Iraq on Sunday, a military source in the area said, and another team said it had discovered more than 50 bodies in a grave south of Baghdad on April 17.

The grave found on Sunday was in the village of al-Guba, 50 miles north of Baghdad, in the troubled Diyala province, where al-Qaida Sunni Arab militants have regrouped after being driven out of other parts of the country.

Most of the bodies had their hands bound and gunshot wounds in the head. Some were decomposed, according to the military source, who declined to be named.

A senior security spokesman in Baghdad, Major-General Qassim Moussawi, said police and Iraqi military had uncovered 51 bodies in a grave on April 17 in Mahmudiya, a town 20 miles south of Baghdad.

He added that security forces had taken them to the morgue of a local hospital and some families had already identified the victims as their relatives.

Green Zone blasts
In Baghdad, at least eight rounds slammed into the Green Zone, which houses the Iraqi government and U.S. Embassy, said a police official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Sirens could be heard from the area and loudspeakers warned residents to take cover. There was no immediate word on casualties or damage.

An Iraqi military spokesman said that over the past month, militants had fired a total of 712 missiles and mortar rounds inside Baghdad.

"They were all Iranian-made brought into Iraq in many ways," Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi told reporters. He did not elaborate on how the security forces had determined the origin of the exploded munitions.

The Green Zone has been regularly shelled since March, and two American soldiers were killed in the bombardment earlier this month.

Sadr City fighting
Sporadic clashes continued Sunday in the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, a sprawling district in northeastern Baghdad with 2.5 million people. Fighting in the district has been ongoing since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki first launched his campaign a month ago against militias in the southern city of Basra.

Iraqi police said two people were killed and 12 injured in Sadr City in exchanges of fire between joint Iraqi-American forces and fighters of the Mahdi army.

Four of the injured in the clashes early Sunday were young children, said an officer who declined to identify himself because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The police officer said U.S. Apache helicopters were circling the area and providing support to the government forces.

But a U.S. military statement said an unmanned drone had killed a total of five militants using Hellfire missiles in three separate engagements.

In the southern suburb of Maalif, five people died and 14 were wounded in a clash between Shiite militiamen and Iraqi and American forces, said a local police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give the information to the media. The U.S. military denied that its forces were engaged there.

Associated Press Television News footage from the scene showed a minibus riddled with bullets and a pool of blood in another minibus.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, a suicide car bomber blew himself up at a security checkpoint in the eastern neighborhood of Zayouna killing three people and injuring nine, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release the information.

U.S. spokesman Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll said a series of recent car bombings and suicide attacks showed that al-Qaida in Iraq remains "a very lethal threat" and said the military would continue to pursue the insurgents "with great intensity."

Sunni, Shiite talks
Meanwhile, al-Maliki met with the Sunni Arab vice president to discuss reintegrating Sunni political parties into the Shiite-dominated government. The talks with Tariq al-Hashemi came a day after the Sunni leader said the return of his boycotting political bloc to the Cabinet was a priority.

The two men discussed "the future of the political process and the rebuilding of a national and unified government," according to a statement from the presidency office.

On Saturday, al-Hashemi said the government needs to reconcile quickly to "save Iraq."

His comments were the latest to signal readiness by the Sunni National Accordance Front to rejoin the government after an absence of nearly nine months. The group quit the government in protest over what they described as its anti-Sunni bias.

But Sunni officials have said internal power struggles within the Front over who should be appointed to which posts have delayed a formal decision.

Al-Hashemi has been one of al-Maliki's most bitter critics, accusing him of sectarian favoritism, while the prime minister has complained that the vice president is blocking key legislation.

But al-Hashemi and other Sunni leaders apparently have been swayed by al-Maliki's crackdown against Shiite militias that began late last month and focused on the feared Mahdi Army of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Maliki also has threatened to politically isolate al-Sadr if the Mahdi Army is not disbanded.

A delegation of about 40 lawmakers from various Sunni, Kurd, Turkomen and Shiite parliamentary parties visited Sadr City Sunday and urged the government to end the military campaign there.