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BAQOUBA, Iraq — A mass execution in a rural village north of Baghdad on Sunday night was the latest example of insurgents staging fake sectarian killings in order to fuel tensions between the Sunnis and Shiites, U.S. soldiers investigating the incident said.

An estimated 18 bodies were carted away from a small strip of stores that was strewn with bullets and covered with blood.

The killings occurred in a predominantly Sunni area about 40 miles north of Baghdad where several insurgent groups operate, U.S. soldiers said.

Local villagers told U.S. troops Sunday night that the killers wore Iraqi Army uniforms and claimed to be part of the Mahdi militia, a Shiite group loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

But Mahdi militia activity in this mostly Sunni area is almost unheard of and U.S. troops here speculate that the attackers were actually a team of Sunni insurgents trying to heighten the sectarian tensions that many believe have sparked hundreds of killings in recent weeks.

“We think that an AIF (Anti-Iraqi Forces) cell working to create the perception of more sectarian violence moved to a predominantly Sunni area and executed people and said they were the Mahdi Army in order to foment more sectarian unrest,” said Maj. John Digiambattista, the operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 4th Infantry Division.

The incident remains under investigation, military officials said, and highlights a fundamental debate that has intensified in Iraq since the Feb. 22 explosion that ripped apart a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Some prominent Iraqis, including former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, say dangerous sectarian tensions are pushing the country towards the “point of no return” and a full-scale civil war.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, recently urged Iraqi leaders to crack down on sectarian militias.

“More Iraqis are dying from the militia violence than from the terrorists,” the ambassador said.

Yet many U.S. troops on the ground in demographically mixed cities like Baghdad and Baqouba say traditional insurgents — such as radical Muslims, foreign fighters and former Baathists — in fact commit most of the apparent sectarian violence.

The contrived attacks are designed to ignite civil unrest and undermine the fledgling democracy in a way that more direct attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces have been unable to do, soldiers said.

“It’s not sectarian violence,” Lt. Col. Thomas Fisher, the 1-68 battalion commander, said of the string of recent killings. “This is a historical tribal fault line, and that would be an ideal location to stir up sectarian problems.”

During the past several weeks, Fisher has seen numerous incidents of civilian killings in his sector surrounding Baqouba, one of Iraq’s few major cities that is almost evenly split between Sunnis and Shiites.

One day after the bombing of the Samarra mosque, 47 people were found dead at a brick-making factory.

While initial reports suggested all the victims were Shiites, further investigation showed the dead were a mix of both sects.

U.S. soldiers said the bodies discovered Sunday night appeared to be those of Shiites, and their attackers may have mistaken them for Sunnis.

Initial reports indicated 30 bodies were discovered, but officials later recovered 18.

In the current climate of fear about sectarian attacks, U.S. troops believe that battle for public perception is more important than ever.

“If people don’t understand the facts, then that is going to increase the tensions,” Digiambattista said.

“It is important for us to find the facts so we can inform the public. If this was not sectarian violence, then they should know it was not.”

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