Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army has replaced al Qaeda in Iraq as "the most dangerous accelerant" of the sectarian violence plaguing Iraq for nearly a year, according to a Pentagon report.
Attacks by Iraqi insurgents and sectarian militias jumped 22 percent from mid-August to mid-November, and Iraqi civilians suffered the bulk of casualties, according to the quarterly report released on Monday.
The average number of attacks reported each week jumped during that period from nearly 800 to almost 1,000, the report said. (Watch how insurgent and sectarian attacks have become a staple of Iraqi civilian life )
The two most prominent militias -- the Mehdi Army and the Badr Organization -- are armed wings of Shiite political parties whose support is crucial to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The Mehdi Army in particular "exerts significant influence in Baghdad and the southern provinces of Iraq and on the government of Iraq," and fights periodic battles with Badr supporters, according to the report. The Badr Organization is affiliated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The Pentagon report comes as Robert Gates takes over as defense secretary to replace Donald Rumsfeld, and as President Bush ponders major changes in the nearly 4-year-old war. (Watch what are Gates' chief challenges in Iraq )
The number of attacks recorded in September and October were the highest on record, the report found, but it provided no specific figures.
Nearly 70 percent of attacks targeted U.S. and allied troops, "but the overwhelming majority of casualties were suffered by Iraqis," the report concluded. (Full story)
On Tuesday, 53 bullet-riddled bodies were found in Baghdad, and another 12 in Baquba, the capital of Diyala province, Interior Ministry sources said. Among the dead in Baghdad was Mutashar al-Sudani, a well-known television actor who was kidnapped on Monday, the sources said.
All are believed to be victims of sectarian violence.
Thirteen people convicted of killings, rapes and burning of bodies were hanged Tuesday, the Iraqi prime minister's office announced.
The death sentences were carried out after an "investigation was completed, and their confessions taken, according to judicial procedures," the office said in a statement.
One of those executed "confessed to killing 10 people," and another "confessed to killing four members of one family," the statement said.
A third "could not remember how many people he killed, because they were too many," the statement added.
Sixty-four people -- including women -- have been hanged since the death penalty was reinstated, following Iraq's return to sovereignty in 2004. Another 150 people are on death row awaiting execution or the outcome of their appeal, according to Iraq's Justice Ministry.