BAGHDAD, Iraq – In the second wave of mass bloodshed in the past three days, Iraqi police discovered 87 corpses left in fields, in minibuses and in crudely dug graves over a 24-hour period, Interior Ministry officials said Tuesday.

The disclosure of the extraordinary body count, which comes on the heels of coordinated bombings in two marketplaces in Sadr City on Sunday that left at least 58 dead, provided mounting evidence that sectarian tensions remain red hot and the nation may be edging closer to an all-out civil war.

Most of the victims – some with bullet wounds to the head and others showing signs of strangulation – were found in various dumps and freshly dug graves in Baghdad, said Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul Rahman. Three were found in the northern city of Mosul.

At one site in eastern Baghdad, not far from the Sadr City bombings, 29 men were piled into a gravesite in an open field.

News of the mass killings came on the same day that Iraqi authorities announced they had thwarted a plot by hundreds of al-Qaida terrorists to infiltrate Iraqi security forces charged with guarding the Green Zone, the heavily fortified compound housing the U.S. Embassy and several Iraqi government buildings.

Interior Ministry officials offered few details about the al-Qaida plot, and U.S. Embassy and military officials in Baghdad declined to even confirm the scheme existed.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that he had heard of a report about the plot but had not received confirmation.

The unearthing of dozens of executed and strangled men comes after last month’s bombing of the revered Askariya shrine in the northern city of Samarra.

More than 500 people, mostly Sunnis, were killed in the violence after the bombing. Several Sunni mosques also were destroyed and their clerics attacked.

Members of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the armed men who patrol the streets of Sadr City, were accused of being among the Shiites responsible for launching retaliatory attacks after the Samarra bombing.

After the attack on Sadr City on Sunday, Sadr proclaimed that Sunni extremists were behind the bombings but said he would not retaliate.

On Tuesday, aides to the young cleric in Sadr City vehemently denied that followers were responsible for the deaths of any of the executed men.

“The bombings of Sadr City and the dead bodies found today are unrelated,” said Sheik Abdul Zahara al-Suaidi, a senior aide and leader of Friday prayers at the main mosque in Sadr City. “This kind of activity is against Islamic principles and could never be the reaction of the Sadr philosophy or (its) followers.”

While Iraqi and U.S. security forces periodically discover crudely buried corpses in the city and countryside, such a large number of bodies found in such a short period of time is highly unusual. Rahman would not say which sects the 87 victims belonged to but he noted that the bodies were scattered in Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad.

Iraqi and U.S. officials are keenly aware that the potential for more significant sectarian bloodshed lies ahead. Next week, hundreds of thousands of Shiites from throughout the Muslim world will descend on the Imam Hussein shrine in the southern city of Karbala to observe Arbeen, the 40th day of mourning over the martyrdom of the imam.

U.S. military officials said they are focusing much of their intelligence monitoring on the holiday, which they believe is a prime target for insurgents bent on deepening the Shiite-Sunni tensions.

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry said it busted a sophisticated plot by al-Qaida to infiltrate Iraqi security forces guarding the Green Zone. Rahman said that 421 al-Qaida loyalists were trying to join an Iraqi army unit charged with providing much of the security for the outer perimeter as well as posts inside the Green Zone.

He said that several Defense Ministry officials also were involved in assisting the purported terrorists and have been detained. Rahman said he had no information about the identity of the officials.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr told The Associated Press that the plot was uncovered three weeks ago and that the plotters were a bureaucrat’s signature away from joining a battalion at the Green Zone.

“You can imagine what could happen to a minister or an ambassador while passing through these gates when those terrorists are there,” Jabr told AP.

In political developments, the leaders from several Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and secular political blocs met at the home of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to start negotiations on forming the new government.

No substantive progress was made, but the various political leaders are expected to meet again Wednesday, one day before the first scheduled meeting of the new parliament.

Parliament members said the negotiations for prime minister and Cabinet positions could take weeks to sort out but voiced optimism that a speaker of the assembly could be agreed upon as early as Wednesday.

The Iraqi government also announced Tuesday that it would prohibit vehicular traffic from Wednesday night to late Thursday afternoon as a security precaution for the first meeting of parliament.

In the volatile western Anbar province, the U.S. military announced Tuesday that two soldiers died in enemy action a day earlier.

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