BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraqi officials Wednesday reported finding mass graves with remains of 34 people, most believed to have been Iraqi army recruits waylaid three years ago by al-Qaeda gunmen as they traveled to a training base near the Syrian border.
Farmers tipped off authorities last week about the graves, located in the Euphrates River valley near Syria about 200 miles northwest of Baghdad, according to a local mayor, Farhan Fitaghan.
Fitaghan told The Associated Press that two of the remains were women.
Most of the victims were believed to have been army recruits from the southern Shi’ite city of Karbala who were traveling by bus in September 2005 to a training camp in an abandoned phosphate plant in Qaim when they were stopped by gunmen and taken away, the mayor said.
“We informed the Karbala authorities and invited their families to come and identify their relatives,” said Fitaghan, the mayor of Qaim. ” We held an official funeral procession today and paid all expenses to send the coffins to Karbala.”
At the time, most Sunnis in the western province of Anbar refused to join the mostly Shi’ite army and police, forcing authorities to recruit volunteers from Shiite areas to the east and south.
The Qaim area had been among the most dangerous parts of the country for U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni militant groups smuggled weapons and fighters from Syria, crossing the border near Qaim and heading for Baghdad and other major cities to the south.
Iraqi insurgents seized Qaim in April 2005, forcing U.S. Marines to recapture the town the following month in heavy fighting. The area became secure only after Sunni tribes in Anbar turned against al-Qaeda in late 2006 and joined forces with the Americans.
Since then, authorities have been turning up more and more mass graves in former insurgent strongholds — testimony to the brutality of the nearly six-year war.
Although violence has dropped sharply across the country, attacks continue in Baghdad and northern areas where Sunni insurgents still operate.
A car bomb exploded Wednesday in the northern city of Mosul, killing four civilians, police said. The city has been plagued by attacks against Christians and other religious minorities despite months of U.S. and Iraqi military operations to chase out extremists.
Mosul officials said few of the nearly 10,000 Christians chased from their homes earlier this month are returning to the city, despite government pledges of financial support and protection.
Every Christian family that comes back to Mosul would receive 1 million Iraqi dinars — about $865 — on orders of the prime minister, said Jawdat Ismaeel, a local migration official.
Lt. Gen. Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, the Iraqi military commander for Ninevah province, said the government would protect “every family that returns home.” He said checkpoints and foot patrols were helping to improve the security situation in Mosul.
“We urge other families to come back,” Tawfiq said. “We will ensure their protection.”
Islamic extremists have frequently targeted Christians and other religious minorities since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, forcing tens of thousands to flee Iraq. However, attacks had declined as areas became more secure after a U.S. troop buildup, a U.S.-funded Sunni revolt against al-Qaeda and a Shi’ite militia cease-fire.
Sunni insurgents are believed to be behind the recent campaign that has driven out roughly half of the Christian population in Mosul, the country’s third-largest city, located 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.
However, a message purportedly from one extremist group, Ansar al-Islam, denied involvement in attacks on Christians and instead blamed Kurdish militias — a charge the Kurds have denied but which has been widely rumored among Mosul’s Arab community.
The message was posted on jihadist forums on the Internet and could not be authenticated, according to the SITE Intelligence Group which monitors extremist messages.