ZAHAMM, Iraq — The graves of more than 50 people thought killed by al Qaeda in Iraq during their two-year reign of terror in Diyala province’s “bread basket” region have been found in a pomegranate orchard in a village near the town of Himbus.
Excavations at the site began last week and were expected to continue after troops of the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment were tipped to the location by a man who claimed to have escaped from al Qaeda’s “jail” there last summer.
Only about a third of the untended orchard, located off a road leading from the village to Himbus, about three miles north, has been searched so far.
Two nearby orchards thought to be burial grounds also have to be looked at, raising the prospect that the Zahamm farms could collectively rank as one of the largest al Qaeda killing fields found in Iraq.
Himbus and the villages nearby are northeast of the major town of Muqdadiya, north of Baghdad.
In 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq declared Diyala province the center of its Islamic State of Iraq caliphate. The Himbus area, with its fruit orchards providing cover from aircraft, became a major weapons storage area and training center. And it ruled with an iron fist.
“When they first came into the area, they said they were mujahideen fighting the occupation forces. But later they started forcing people to give them money and forcing them from their homes. People who worked for the Iraq Army or the Iraqi Police were punished,” said Sheik Abbas Hussein Khalaf, the leader of nearby Taiyah village.
“They imposed their rules: no music, no smoking, the woman had to wear the veil, and there were no wedding celebrations allowed. No one was allowed out after 5 p.m.
“Some people were shot in front of the people in the street, others were kidnapped, killed and put in the mass graves.”
One of them was a cousin, he said, the brother of the man who had escaped and told U.S. troops about the graves.
Mass executions, once associated with Saddam Hussein’s regime, became a tool of terror used by al Qaeda as it took over vast swaths of Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion.
With tens of thousands of Sunni fighters joining the year-old U.S. troop surge, al Qaeda fighters have been forced out of former strongholds, giving locals security needed to report horrors like this mass grave discovered here.
Elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, Shi’ite-against-Shi’ite fighting that dominated news reports for the past week eased when cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets nationwide, the Associated Press reported from Baghdad.
The Iraqi government quickly welcomed Sheik al-Sadr’s apparent move to resolve a widening conflict, sparked Tuesday by Iraqi government operations against his backers in the oil-rich southern city of Basra.
Instead of fighting, followers handed out sweets in Baghdad’s main Mahdi Army militia stronghold of Sadr City, which was named after Sheik al-Sadr’s late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, the AP reported.