BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The 22 bodies, lined up in coffins in a mosque courtyard Friday, are as shriveled as ancient mummies after lying a month in the desert where they were dumped, bound and bullet-ridden. They were Sunni Arabs, rounded up from their Baghdad homes one night by men in police uniforms.
Relatives and neighbors in mourning are convinced they were killed by government-linked Shiite death squads they say are behind corpses that turn up nearly every day in and around the capital -- two more on Friday. Now some Sunnis are vowing to take action to protect themselves.
At least 539 bodies have been found since Iraq's interim government was formed April 28 -- 204 in Baghdad -- according to an Associated Press count. The identities of many are unknown, but 116 are known to be Sunnis, 43 Shiites and one Kurd. Some are likely victims of crime -- including kidnappings -- rampant in some cities and as dangerous to Iraqis as political violence.
The count may be low since one or two bodies are found almost daily and are never reported.
Both minority-Sunnis and Shiites accuse one another of using death squads -- and the accusations are deepening the Sunni-Shiite divide at a time when mistrust is already high over a new constitution that Iraqis will vote on in eight days. Shiites overwhelmingly support the charter, Sunnis oppose it, saying it will fragment Iraq.
Shiite deaths are generally attributed to Sunni insurgents, who hit Shiite sites with suicide attacks, bombings and shootings, but also carry out targeted slayings, leaving groups of Shiite bodies to be found later. Insurgents have disguised themselves as police -- most recently in an attack last week south of Baghdad in which they dragged five Shiite teachers and their driver into a school and shot them to death.
But there have been several cases of Sunni Arabs who turn up dead in large groups after being taken by men claiming to be Interior Ministry forces. The largest group of bodies found outside Baghdad was 36 Sunnis discovered Aug. 25 in a dry riverbed near Badrah, close to the Iranian border, after being kidnapped in Baghdad.
The grisly finds have led Sunnis to believe that Shiite Muslims who dominate the government and the Interior Ministry are waging a quiet, deadly campaign against them. But the Interior Ministry denies any role and blames insurgents using stolen police equipment.
On Friday, in Baghdad's Umm al-Qura mosque, mourners for the 22 men shouted slogans against the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia linked to one of the main parties in the government, accusing them in the slayings.
The desiccated, unrecognizable bodies lay in wooden coffins, each with a photo of the victim attached. Mourners wept. "Why were they killed? They had done nothing wrong," wailed one man.
The bodies were found Sept. 27 in the same Badrah region near the Iranian border outside the southern town of Kut, where they had lain for weeks exposed to the sun. They had been shot, some in the head. Some were blindfolded. All had their hands bound by ropes, plastic or shiny metal handcuffs. The site was 100 miles from where the men had last been seen.
On Aug 18, some 50 vehicles full of men in Interior Ministry uniforms swept into Baghdad's Iskan neighborhood just after dawn and surrounded several streets, going into houses and grabbing the 22 young men -- some of them pairs of brothers, said Jamal Amin Mustafa, 60, who lives nearby and was at Friday's funeral service.
"They took them from their bedrooms," said Mahmoud al-Sumeidaie, the cleric who delivered prayers during the service. "We blame the government, which came to save us from Saddam's terrorism but has brought terrorism worse than Saddam."
The story is echoed by Tahir Dawood, who on Sept. 28 went to the Baghdad morgue to identify his two younger brothers and five of his cousins whose bodies -- bound, blindfolded and shot -- were found that morning dumped in a lot near his neighborhood of Hurriya.
The seven, all construction worker, had been taken from their homes the previous day before dawn, by a large force of men in police uniforms who told families they were from the Interior Ministry, Dawood told AP. He has since fled Baghdad with most of his immediate family.
At a three-day wake held last weekend, a cousin of the victims, Khaled al-Azawi, fumed. He accused the Interior Ministry of waging "genocide against the Sunni Arabs in Iraq with the knowledge of the American forces." He and Dawood said the slain men had no connection to Sunni insurgents -- or any link to the government or U.S. forces that might make them insurgent targets.
"We have no other choice but to take up our rifles and protect ourselves," al-Azawi said.
Sheik Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, a prominent cleric with the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, accused the government of aiming to "liquidate Sunnis" to knock them out of the political process. He, too, blamed the Badr Brigade, the military wing of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shiite party in the government.
Some officials have accused al-Kubaisi's group of links to insurgents. Under Saddam Hussein, the minority Sunni Arab sect, 20 percent of the Iraq population, was dominant. It brutally oppressed the Shiite sect -- 60 percent in central and south Iraq -- and the rebellious Kurds in the north. Now, the largely Sunni insurgency is fighting to regain it's political standing.
Maj. Gen. Adnan Thabit, the commander of the Interior Ministry's special forces -- including the special counterterrorism Wolf Brigade -- denied any government role in any slayings. He said insurgents were donning police uniforms and carrying out the killings to enflame divisions.
"The ministry is studying new measures to control the work of the shops which deal with military and police uniforms in Baghdad" to ensure they don't fall into insurgents' hands, he told AP. He also said ministry forces would take local clerics or respected figures with them when they carry out raids in sensitive areas.
But the idea of self-defense among Sunnis appears to be catching on. After the killings of Dawood's relatives, Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie -- head of the Sunni Endowment, the government agency in charge of the upkeep of Sunni mosques and shrines -- called for forming local forces in Baghdad's neighborhoods to defend them against suspicious interlopers.
That raises the prospect of yet another semi-organized armed force in Iraq's patchwork of gunmen -- one that could easily turn from self-defense to revenge.
"We swear we will retaliate vow for the killing of my brother and my cousins," said Saadon al-Azawi, whose brother was among those killed in Hurriya.