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Before Sheik al-Sadr’s statement, dozens of Shi’ite gunmen yesterday stormed a government TV facility in central Basra, forcing Iraqi troops guarding the building to flee and setting armored vehicles on fire, according to the AP.

In contrast to much of Iraq, which is divided into Sunni and Shi’ite areas, Diyala province northeast of Baghdad is said to reflect the mixed ethnic makeup of the entire country.

As a result, it has suffered some of worst — and least reported — violence in five years since the U.S.-led invasion.

Surging U.S. troops did not arrive in northern Diyala until January, a year after President Bush first announced the troop buildup.

“Smell that?” a U.S. soldier asked as he entered the grove with Sheik Khalaf and an American reporter on an exploratory visit. No one answered. The gagging stench of rotting flesh was unmistakable.

The first shallow grave found by soldiers and the sheik contained the remains of a man dead for some time. There was no flesh on the bones. The severed head, wrapped in a traditional headdress, was at the body’s feet.

“I will contact the muktars [leaders] in the other villages,” Sheik Khalaf said. “I’ll tell them what we found.”

Twenty-eight graves were found the next day by the sheik and a handful of village volunteers. Their contents were left in place for later disinterment. On Thursday, with a U.S. military escort, more than 100 volunteers from 10 villages near Himbus descended on the orchard with shovels and white bedsheets from which to make shrouds.

After just a few minutes of digging, the loud talk among the men who had broken into groups became low murmurs. The only other sounds heard were shovels digging into earth, the sounds of people vomiting from the stench that spread like a greasy cloud, and quiet discussions on how best to extricate the remains.

Most of those unearthed had not been decapitated. They had been bound and shot in the back of the head. The cords that bound their wrists were still there. Many skulls still had blindfolds over the eye sockets.

It was difficult to tell how long a body had been in the ground. Some lacked all flesh; others were still decomposing. One man in a police uniform may have died just before U.S. forces pushed into the area nearly three months ago. His facial features were still distinct, locked in a grimace.

Two hours of digging disinterred the original 29 bodies and at least eight more. At least 14 more were discovered and excavated Saturday during two hours of digging by 40 volunteers.

“When you find [al Qaeda] kill them. Kill them all,” said Kareemhiya Marzi al-Shumari, an elderly woman from the village of Haruniya.

Mrs. al-Shumari said her son Mohammed Jaber, 42, was taken away by al Qaeda in July after he repeatedly refused to join them.

As men dug she went from excavation site to excavation site, slapping her face in grief, crying loudly and lifting her hands skyward.

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