BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The military announced the killing of four more U.S. soldiers on Sunday, pushing the American death toll past 1,700, and police found the bullet-riddled bodies of 28 people – many thought to be Sunni Arabs – buried in shallow graves or dumped streetside in Baghdad.

The bodies were discovered as the Shiite-led government pressed to open disarmament talks with insurgents responsible for a relentless campaign of violence, which has taken on ominous sectarian overtones with recurring tit-for-tat killings.

A crackdown by Iraqi security forces in Baghdad and offensives carried out by U.S. forces in western Iraq have had only had a temporary effect in blunting the cycle of carnage in which at least 940 people have died since Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari announced his government six weeks ago.

Al-Jaafari spokesman Laith Kuba said many militant groups were reaching out to the government, seeking a place in the political process. He urged them to lay down their arms.

Some insurgents are motivated to end their resistance, Kuba argued, by the election of an Iraqi government which put the American presence in the background, although its military is still 140,000 strong.

“Now is the right time for any group to lay down their weapons and take part in the (political) process,” he said.

The offer did not include foreign extremists such as Jordanian-born al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi because “they only want to kill,” Kuba said.

Four American soldiers died Saturday in two roadside bombings west of Baghdad, increasing the number of U.S. forces killed since the war began in March 2003 to at least 1,701.

On Sunday, Gen. Rashid Flaiyeh, who runs all the Interior Ministry elite units including the Wolf Brigade, escaped an apparent assassination attempt when a mortar barrage rained down on his mother’s funeral in Baghdad. Eleven mourners were wounded, including two seriously, Lt. Ismael Abdul Sattar said. Flaiyeh is Interior Minister Bayan Jabr’s security adviser.

Lt. Ayad Othman said a shepherd found the bodies of 20 men on Friday in the Nahrawan desert, 20 miles east of Baghdad.

“All were blindfolded and their hands were tied behind their backs and shot from behind,” Othman said. “The assassins excavated a hole and buried them inside it and seven were found naked.”

Witnesses claimed the slain men were Sunnis, according to a statement from the influential Sunni organization, the Association of Muslim Scholars. No details were provided to support the claim, but the association said it had begun an investigation.

Eight other slain men were found shot in the head Sunday in two different locations in Baghdad’s predominatly Shiite northern suburb of Shula, police Capt. Majed Abdul Aziz said. The bodies could not immediately be identified.

“The interior minister keeps saying security is getting better, but everyday we hear of 20 bodies killed here and other 20 bodies found there,” said Salih al-Mutlak, head of the prominent umbrella Sunni body, the National Dialogue Council.

The grisly discoveries were announced two days after 21 men were found slain Friday near Qaim, on the lawless Syrian frontier about 200 miles west of Baghdad.

It was feared the bodies may have been those of Iraqi soldiers who went missing Wednesday after leaving their base in Akashat, a remote village near Qaim, in a bus bound for Baghdad.

Last month, multiple batches of bodies turned up in various locations across Iraq. Many were killed in apparent revenge slayings that have raised fears Iraq was descending into sectarian civil war.

Despite the raging violence, there were several positive developments Sunday.

French journalist Florence Aubenas and her Iraqi assistant Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi were freed Saturday after five months in captivity.

Aubenas left Baghdad at noon Sunday on a French government plane in the middle of a sandstorm that had closed the capital’s international airport for two days. Al-Saadi received a hero’s welcome – hugs and kisses from more than 60 relatives and friends at his southern Baghdad home. A band of trumpets played Arab tunes and a sheep was slaughtered to celebrate his homecoming.

On her return to France, the veteran reporter for the Liberation newspaper said she had been held in an Iraq cellar in “difficult conditions,” tied up and with little water. French officials said no ransom was paid.

In northern Iraq, the 111-member Kurdish Parliament unanimously elected veteran guerrilla leader Massoud Barzani to be the first president of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, prompting horn-honking celebrations by supporters. Barzani was elected to a four-year term and will also lead the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, which numbers an estimated 100,000 members.

Some 2,000 soccer fans tried to ignore the violence and watched two of Iraq’s elite teams play at Baghdad’s biggest sports complex, the 50,000-capacity Shaab Stadium. It reopened to the public Sunday after it was commandeered two years ago for a U.S. military base.

Zawraa, an ancient name for Baghdad, beat Shurta, Arabic for police, 2-0 in a game that many spectators feared could be marred by a mortar attack or suicide bombing – a regular occurrence in the capital.

“We were terrified at the beginning, but when the game started we had the chance to forget about the attacks, the bombs and the violence for a little while,” said Shurta fan Ghazi Faisal, a police major. “For once there was some joy.”


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