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Mass grave with about 100 bodies discovered in Iraqi region of intense sectarian fighting

Sunday, March 9, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) -- A mass grave containing about 100 bodies was discovered Saturday in a region north of Baghdad that has seen years of intense fighting between Shiites and Sunni extremist members of al-Qaida in Iraq.

The grisly discovery came as Iraq's Sunni parliament speaker called on the nation's Shiites and Kurds to work together with the minority he represents to pass an election law that would help reconcile Iraq's often warring sects and splinter groups.

The grave, near Khalis in the Diyala province about 50 miles north of Baghdad, is still being investigated, but the U.S. military said the skeletal remains appear to have been there for a long time.

It was not immediately clear how the people had died, the military said.

Police Col. Sabah al-Ambaqi said the grave was discovered in an orchard near al-Bu Tumaa, a Sunni village outside Khalis. He said authorities including both Iraqi and U.S. forces were conducting a search when they uncovered the site.

Khalis is a Shiite town surrounded by Sunni communities and has been the scene of repeated sectarian attacks. Al-Qaida in Iraq is active in the area, which has seen hundreds of kidnapping and mass abductions in past years.

Police in Diyala reported two separate bombings Saturday in which six people were killed.

The U.S. is in charge of security in Baghdad and other parts of central and northern Iraq, but they plan to eventually hand it over to Iraqi forces. The two countries have reportedly been hashing out some of the terms for some time now, but the Defense Department said the negotiations were to officially commence Saturday.

Diplomats have been discussing agreements for a long-term relationship between the two countries and a deal that will define the legal basis for a U.S. troop presence in the future.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said late Friday the United States' goal is to complete a deal by December, when the U.N. Security Council resolution that now governs the U.S. and coalition presence in Iraq expires.

Morrell would not discuss specifics, but said the final agreement "does not seek permanent bases, will not in any way codify the number of troops that will remain in Iraq; it will not tie the hands of a future commander in chief, it will not require Senate ratification, but we will make every effort to keep Congress apprised of progress in these talks."

Both sides see an agreement as the basis for establishing a normal state-to-state relationship, enabling Iraq to function with full sovereignty.

To do so, Iraq must work toward national reconciliation between its sectarian groups, which includes holding provincial elections on Oct. 1. The elections would transfer some power from the national government to the provinces and decentralize the decision-making process.

Parliament last month approved a bill that was to set up provincial elections. It was rejected by the Shiite member of Iraq's three member presidential council.

The disagreement over the proposed law comes over who has the right to appoint a local governor. The bill says it's the prime minister's prerogative, but some influential Shiites want the power to rest with provincial legislatures -- where they have influence.

"We are seeking ... a unified stance to go forward together in the right direction," Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said.

In Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and the urban center of an oil-rich region, thousands of people took to the streets to protest deteriorating security in the southern city where Iraqi forces assumed responsibility for safety in December.

Its Shiite residents are becoming increasingly alarmed about security, saying that killings, kidnappings and other crimes have increased significantly since British forces turned over security responsibility.

In February, two journalists working for CBS were kidnapped in Basra. One was released but the other, a Briton, is still being held.

A long line of marchers, estimated to be as many as 5,000 people, demonstrated near the Basra police command headquarters Saturday, demanding that the police chief, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jalil Khalaf, and the commander of joint military-police operation, Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Fireji, resign.


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