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 insurgents 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 autonomy 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 95 kilometres (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. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The area south of Hillah is predominantly Shiite, but there is a belt of Sunni-majority towns north of the city.
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.