The bodies of 18 men -- bound, blindfolded and strangled -- were found in a Sunni Arab district of Baghdad, apparent victims of the sectarian turmoil gripping Iraq that threatens the formation of a coalition government.
Separately, gunmen in Iraqi police commando uniforms stormed the offices of a private security company and kidnapped as many as 50 employees, police reported.
The attackers hit the al-Rawafid Security Co, a private Iraqi-owned business, at 4:30pm and forced the workers into seven vehicles, including several white SUV's, Interior Ministry Major Felah Al-Mohammedawi said.
Meanwhile, Iraq's Shiite interior minister, a hated figure for many Sunnis who accuse him of condoning death squads, escaped an apparent assassination attempt yesterday after his convoy was hit by a roadside bomb as it left the ministry compound in Baghdad.
The minister, however, was not in his car at the time.
The bombing of an important Shiite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22 has pitched Iraq towards civil war, unleashing a wave of sectarian killings and deepening the divide and mutual suspicion between the country's majority Shiites and minority Sunnis.
The dumping of bodies bearing signs of torture and killed execution-style has long been a feature of the violence.
The 18 bodies discovered by US troops in western Baghdad late on Tuesday had all been garrotted and had their hands bound with plastic ties, police and hospital officials said.
There was confusion over the identities of the victims, a mixture of middle-aged and young men in civilian clothes.
A policeman at the Yarmuk hospital morgue pointed to their clothing and long hair as an indication some may have been foreign religious extremists linked to al-Qaeda, but reporters who saw the bodies said many appeared to be Iraqis.
"I saw the bodies when they arrived," said a policeman at the hospital. "I saw blood and signs of beating. The police who brought them said they weren't Iraqis."
Senior officials, aware of the potential for sectarian anger if it becomes clear all are either Sunni or Shiite Muslims, made no formal comment on the religious identities of the dead.
The US military said a patrol found the bodies in the western Mansour district after receiving reports of a suspicious vehicle on the side of the road.
Sunnis have accused the Shiite-led, US-backed government's police and other security forces under the control of Interior Minister Bayan Jabor of abducting and killing Sunni civilians -- an accusation that both Jabor and the police deny.
Interior Ministry vehicles normally used to transport Jabor and his aides were attacked as they left the ministry yesterday to fill up at a nearby gasoline station.
A roadside bomb completely destroyed one car in the convoy, killing two and wounding five, a police source said.
Meanwhile, a string of explosions yesterday killed at least four people -- including two young boys -- and injured four in Baghdad, police said.
In related news, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused Tehran of dispatching elements of its Revolutionary Guard to stir trouble inside Iraq.
Rumsfeld offered few details about his allegation of interference by Iran, which fought an eight-year-long war with Iraq in the 1980s and shares a largely unguarded border.
"They are currently putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq," he told a Pentagon news conference on Tuesday. "And it is something that they, I think, will look back on as having been an error in judgment."