BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” The decomposed bodies of at least 13 martial arts experts have been found more than a year after they were kidnapped in an Al Qaeda stronghold west of Baghdad, local officials and family members said on Saturday.The bodies were found on Thursday in a ditch in the desert about 100km west of Ramadi in Anbar province, one of Iraq’s most violent areas and where Al Qaeda and Sunni Arab insurgents are battling US and Iraqi forces.
All appeared to have been shot, hospital officials said.
Weeping relatives gathered at Imam Ali Hospital in Baghdad’s Shiite slum of Sadr city to identify the bodies of the tae kwondo experts.
Reuters television footage showed a jumble of skulls, some with tufts of black hair, and other bones in a large white bag.
Family members sifted through a collection of dirty T-shirts, pants and sandals in a hospital hallway.
“These young players lifted the name of Iraq … these innocents were killed without any reason and they are martyrs,” said 60-year-old Juad Muhawi, the father of one of the victims.
The 15 were kidnapped in May 2006 as they were travelling by bus through the Anbar desert on their way to Jordan to attend a training course.
Qasim Mudalal, the director of Imam Ali Hospital, told Reuters that partial remains which may be those of the remaining two squad members were also recovered.
The Iraqi government had tried to secure their release but no word had been heard of them until Thursday’s grisly find.
Black arm bands
“They were killed about the same time they were taken,â€ said Hameed Hai’es, head of a Sunni Arab group that has been fighting Al Qaeda in Anbar.
â€œThey were killed and left in the desert.”
He said family members had been able to identify them by the clothes they were wearing.
An identity card was also found on one body belonging to 26-year-old squad member Haidar Jabbar.
Hundreds gathered in Sadr City on Saturday for a funeral procession for the athletes. Mourners held aloft their wooden coffins, which were draped in Iraqi flags and flowers, and large photographs of the dead.
They will be buried in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.
Bashar Mustafa, head of Iraq’s Olympic Commitee, declared three days of mourning and ordered Iraq’s national soccer team to wear black armbands before its match against Iran in Amman later on Saturday.
Hai’es said members of the Anbar Salvation Council, a group of local Sunnis who have been fighting Al Qaeda in the province, found the bodies after an Al Qaeda captive told them where the taekwondo team members had been killed.
Thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped for ransom or political gain during Iraq’s sectarian conflict between majority Shiites and Sunni Arabs.
Athletes are frequently targeted, often by Islamist gunmen who regard sport as contrary to Islamic values.
In July 2006, then Iraqi Olympic Committee chief Ahmed Hadjiya and around 30 other sports officials were kidnapped from a Baghdad hall.
Most have never been found.