Adam Ash

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Iraq - militias rule, and there's not much we can do about it

1. In Search of the Fixers -- by JAMES GLANZ/NY Times


ARMED militias are stalking the streets of Iraq ’s cities and towns, but that only begins to describe the problem that the United States faces here. As the violence on those streets increases, there seem to be more and more militias or armed gangs — smaller and more loosely controlled fragments of armed groups — than ever before, and in many ways that is the most serious part of the picture. It would be far easier for the United States if these groups, no matter how antagonistic they are to the Americans, had stuck together; then, at least, they could negotiate, make binding agreements and help knit together a nation.

In America, generals, congressmen and commentators across the political spectrum are embroiled in a debate over troop levels and exit timetables. But if the United States seeks to establish stability so its troops can leave, it must answer the question: whom does it talk to?

Which Sunni and Shiite militias, armed tribal groups and even criminal gangs need to be fought? Which can be bargained with? Which are potential allies as the United States seeks to break the increasingly chaotic cycles of attack, revenge and rivalry for turf and spoils?

Last week, it was Sunni militiamen who staged deadly attacks on the Shiite-led Health Ministry and Sadr City, presumably in retaliation for a mass kidnapping from the Sunni-dominated Higher Education Ministry the week before. Those kidnappings, in turn, were carried out by men in official uniforms who were thought to be Shiite militiamen who had infiltrated the army and police force. But, as always, it was unclear which militia was responsible, or whether the kidnappers were from a breakaway group.

The largest Shiite militia, led by Moktada al-Sadr and called the Mahdi Army, has been widely reported to be splintering. But there is also a growing profusion of other groups: in addition to longstanding rival Shiite militias like the Iranian-trained Badr Organization and the Fadhila militia, both of which are powerful in the south, there are Sunni fighters attached to tribal leaders, ex-Baathists or Al Qaeda cells; Iraqi private security contractors; quasi-government militias originally assembled to guard oil pipelines and power lines; criminal gangs; and neighborhood watch groups.

For the Americans, the disintegration of order has complicated any effort to deal with the armed groups, said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director of the International Crisis Group, an organization of experts on dealing with conflicts that is formulating its own last-ditch plan to salvage peace in Iraq. “Now you have purveyors of violence that are completely independent of everyone else,” Mr. Hiltermann said.

With one or two exceptions, he added, the politicians who nominally head some of the larger militias that are now splintering “don’t control anything.”

The most violent militia is the Mahdi Army, led by Mr. Sadr. Recent conversations with American military commanders in Iraq indicate that the United States ultimately may have to attempt to disarm it in its base in Baghdad — and it will be some time, if ever, before Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki , who needs Mr. Sadr’s support in Parliament, will be a willing partner.

But because there have been so many reports that freelance commanders have broken away from Mr. Sadr’s group and are operating on their own, carrying out their own kidnappings, executions and paramilitary operations, the impact of such an operation is difficult to calculate. For one thing, nobody knows exactly how much Mr. Sadr controls his group. For another, nobody knows to what extent commanders who have seemed to operate on their own might retain loyalty to Mr. Sadr in a major fight.

Some American commanders believe that Mr. Sadr retains influence over some groups he has declared to be renegades. If that were the case, the splinter groups would be functioning like the Salvadoran death squads of the 1980s; those operated quasi-independently and gave their government a measure of deniability even when it almost certainly had ordered killings.

If a similar situation applies here, it could lend credence to the arguments of American commanders who believe that the United States military may ultimately have to go in force to Mr. Sadr’s base of power, a place where it has trod lightly for the past three years, in order to disarm militiamen who remain defiant. Mr. Sadr’s base is a northeastern Baghdad slum populated with two million Shiite Arabs and named after his father.

But Iraqis mostly believe that such a step would be folly because it could inflame Shiites in general. No matter how unruly the groups in the Mahdi Army have or have not become, this argument goes, Mr. Sadr’s own popularity, as well as the number of men in the Mahdi Army, has soared throughout Baghdad and the south as the American military has worn out its welcome.

“This is actually very dangerous,” said Qasim Daoud, a former Iraqi national security advisor who is now a member of Parliament representing the southern holy city of Najaf. “It will go to a flare-up of the whole southern area.”

The roots of the problem with independent armed groups in Iraq trace back to when the United States invaded the country with the help of a strategically placed militia: the fighters who were loyal to two Kurdish clans in the north. In the aftermath, the United States had little appetite for disarming the Kurds, especially since their fighters are under the firm control of their leaders.

Less well known is that before the invasion, the United States also cozied up to some of the Shiite militias, who were then expatriates, with promises that they would not be immediately disbanded if they returned to Iraq, said Amatzia Baram, director of the Ezri Center of Iran and Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel. Before the invasion, when he was a scholar based in Washington, he warned of the dangers of letting the militias keep their arms.

The problem, Mr. Baram said, was that the most powerful of those groups, the Badr Organization, never really returned the warmth. The Badr leadership, Mr. Baram said, “never wanted to be engaged more than, ‘Yes, when you kick Saddam out, we will be there.’ They were very standoffish.”

With those precedents, the United States had little standing to disarm the other militias after the invasion, and they gained steadily in power.

There is, however, a temptation for American officials to see the possibility of working with some armed groups, even today. Travels with American military units and a reading of recent embassy initiatives in Iraq indicate that along with preparations for potential military activity against the Mahdi Army, the United States is stepping up efforts to identify militias associated with Iraqi tribes, political parties, geographic regions and even insurgent groups — to placate and co-opt those they can, and even play some off against each other.

In an indication of that strategy, some local American field commanders now give snap analyses of differences between the Janabi, Juburi and Duleimi tribes, an arresting shift from the early days of the conflict when words like those would have drawn blank stares in an American Humvee rumbling through the desert.

Such efforts have sometimes seemed promising. In September, 25 tribes in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province agreed to cooperate militarily in order to combat the local influence of Al Qaeda. But so far, that agreement seems to have had little influence on security; American and Iraqi troops continue to die at a disheartening rate in Anbar.

Looking forward, Representative Ike Skelton, the Missouri Democrat who is expected to become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee in January, says the cultural importance of guns in Iraqi society, combined with the practical need for Iraqis to protect themselves, makes it all but impossible for the prime minister to disarm the militias, despite his pledges to do so.

“I don’t know how he’s going to do it,” Mr. Skelton said.

Mr. Daoud, the former security adviser, said that a better strategy would be to absorb militias loyal to the elected government into the official armed forces and give the rest jobs under the civilian government if they take appropriate training courses.

“I prefer, really, to make a sort of evaluation of each single person,” Mr. Daoud said.

That approach, which would amount to absorbing many of the militias into the government, may bring less order than hoped, said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The question is not whether the militias can rule much of the country, which I don’t think they can,” Ms. Ottaway said. “The question is whether they can make it impossible for anyone else to rule the country.”

2. New Survey: Iraqis Want a Speedy U.S. Exit -- and Back Attacks on Our Forces

Past surveys have hinted at this result, but a new poll in Iraq makes it more stark than ever: the Iraqi people want the U.S. to exit their country. And most Iraqis now approve of attacks on U.S. forces, even though 94% express disapproval of al-Qaeda.

At one time, this was primarily a call by the Sunni minority, but now the Shiites have also come around to this view. The survey by much-respected World Public Opinion (WPO), taken in September, found that 74% of Shiites and 91% of Sunnis in Iraq want us to leave within a year. The number of Shiites making this call in Baghdad, where the U.S. may send more troops to bring order, is even higher (80%). In contrast, earlier this year, 57% of this same group backed an "open-ended" U.S. stay.

By a wide margin, both groups believe U.S. forces are provoking more violence than they're preventing -- and that day-to-day security would improve if we left.

Support for attacks on U.S. forces now commands majority support among both Shiites and Sunnis. The report states: "Support for attacks on U.S.-led forces has grown to a majority position—now six in ten. Support appears to be related to widespread perception, held by all ethnic groups, that the U.S. government plans to have permanent military bases in Iraq and would not withdraw its forces from Iraq even if the Iraqi government asked it to. If the U.S. were to commit to withdraw, more than half of those who approve of attacks on US troops say that their support for attacks would diminish."

The backing for attacks on our forces has jumped to 61% from 47% in January.

Among Iraqis overall, 77% percent prefer that a strong government get rid of militias, including 100% of the Sunnis polled and 82% of Kurds.
But "the Shia population in Baghdad is more skeptical than elsewhere about the wisdom of disarming the militias," a report by WPO states. In Baghdad, Shias say they want militias to continue to protect their security (59%).

The national survey reached 1,150 Iraqis. It was conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland.

Nearly every opinion poll in the U.S. has shown that roughly 6 in 10 Americans also back a withdrawal within a year.

3. Beware the Lure of 'Phased Withdrawal'
Nixon tried it in Vietnam, once most agreed the war was lost, and it cost 20,000 U.S. lives
By Carolyn Eisenberg

Our pugnacious president visited Vietnam last week and found the lesson for Iraq: "We'll succeed unless we quit." In this reading of history, the United States was defeated in Vietnam because of a failure of will. If George W. Bush has his way, this won't happen again. U.S. troops are staying in Iraq.

In his rigidity, Bush sounds eerily like President Lyndon Johnson, who could not acknowledge until too late his Vietnam policy was in shambles. But in the aftermath of the midterm elections, the calls for "phased withdrawal" - coming out of Congress, the Pentagon and the leaky Iraq Study Group - evoke errors of the Nixon years.

By 1968, the Tet offensive persuaded most Americans the United States could not win the war. Although Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops had sustained enormous casualties, they displayed an uncanny ability to withdraw and rebuild. Meanwhile, the army of South Vietnam demonstrated neither advanced weapons nor years of American "advice" would motivate them to stand up.

In the face of these realities, U.S. officials might have opted to cut losses and bring the troops home. Despite an electoral mandate for peace in the 1968 election, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger embarked on a gradual withdrawal, which took four years and allowed them to continue the attack. While they tarried, another 20,000 Americans were killed and 100,000 wounded, three Asian nations were devastated and some 1 million to 2 million people perished. For all the ink spilled on the subject of Vietnam, our society has never come to terms with this latter phase of the war. How could we allow so many people to die?

There is no single answer. For any nation, defeat is bitter. There was a belligerent commander-in-chief, a national security adviser whose need for power trumped common sense, a covey of bureaucrats too timid to tell us what they knew, an overblown military incapable of renouncing war, a Congress afraid to cut funds, a distractible public easily tricked.

Nobody was held responsible for the needless killings. Indeed Kissinger, that blundering national security adviser, remains a "realist" icon, whose insights are avidly sought in our present crisis. With Nixon, this was a man who left our soldiers dying in rice paddies and fighting suicidal battles on fortified hills while he pursued a fantasy of North Vietnamese surrender.

How odd that in our political culture, an official willing to sacrifice lives for a doomed project is deemed more "realistic" than one who objects. George McGovern, former senator and presidential candidate, is rarely asked for advice.

In the recent elections, the voters expressed their intense opposition to the Iraq war. But we can discern how those hopes are being betrayed. From the Pentagon, we're hearing about a "surge" in troop numbers before reductions can occur, and critics who style themselves as "realists" speak of a "phased withdrawal." But, as happened in Vietnam, this can translate into a prolonged military presence in which a futile battle continues. During three years of occupation, the situation in Iraq has continued to roll downhill. If 140,000 U.S. troops have failed to defeat the insurgents, halt sectarian violence or create an Iraqi military able to restore security, what reason is there to suppose some smaller number will achieve these ends?

Senate Democrats are moving with a vague plan to pull back some unspecified cohort of U.S. troops in four to six months. Their rationale, as articulated by new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, is the looming departure of that first increment will jolt the Iraqi government into effectiveness. But evidence suggests the Iraqi government is paralyzed by factions and has no greater ability to implement an American agenda than Americans. And this approach does not address the ways U.S. activities have antagonized the populace, deepened divisions and damaged the economy.

Sensible people recognize it will take time to remove U.S. troops and put in place mechanisms that might minimize violence. One impediment is determination in Washington to impose ideas on a foreign nation. This month, voters delivered their verdict on a stubborn president who cannot acknowledge this war is lost. But we need to beware of "realists" who will keep other people's children dying for a middle ground that cannot be found.

(Carolyn Eisenberg, a professor of U.S. diplomatic history at Hofstra University, is author of " Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-49 .")

4. Bring Back Saddam Hussein
Restoring the dictator to power may give Iraqis the jolt of authority they need. Have a better solution?
By Jonathan Chait

The debate about Iraq has moved past the question of whether it was a mistake (everybody knows it was) to the more depressing question of whether it is possible to avert total disaster. Every self-respecting foreign policy analyst has his own plan for Iraq. The trouble is that these tracts are inevitably unconvincing, except when they argue why all the other plans would fail. It's all terribly grim.

So allow me to propose the unthinkable: Maybe, just maybe, our best option is to restore Saddam Hussein to power.

Yes, I know. Hussein is a psychotic mass murderer. Under his rule, Iraqis were shot, tortured and lived in constant fear. Bringing the dictator back would sound cruel if it weren't for the fact that all those things are also happening now, probably on a wider scale.

At the outset of the war, I had no high hopes for Iraqi democracy, but I paid no attention to the possibility that the Iraqis would end up with a worse government than the one they had. It turns out, however, that there is something more awful than totalitarianism, and that is endless chaos and civil war.

Nobody seems to foresee the possibility of restoring order to Iraq. Here is the basic dilemma: The government is run by Shiites, and the security agencies have been overrun by militias and death squads. The government is strong enough to terrorize the Sunnis into rebellion but not strong enough to crush this rebellion.

Meanwhile, we have admirably directed our efforts into training a professional and nonsectarian Iraqi police force and encouraging reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites. But we haven't succeeded. We may be strong enough to stop large-scale warfare or genocide, but we're not strong enough to stop pervasive chaos.

Hussein, however, has a proven record in that department. It may well be possible to reconstitute the Iraqi army and state bureaucracy we disbanded, and if so, that may be the only force capable of imposing order in Iraq.

Chaos and order each have a powerful self-sustaining logic. When people perceive a lack of order, they act in ways that further the disorder. If a Sunni believes that he is in danger of being killed by Shiites, he will throw his support to Sunni insurgents who he sees as the only force that can protect him. The Sunni insurgents, in turn, will scare Shiites into supporting their own anti-Sunni militias.

And it's not just Iraqis who act this way. You could find a smaller-scale version of this dynamic in an urban riot here in the United States. But when there's an expectation of social order, people will act in a civilized fashion.

Restoring the expectation of order in Iraq will take some kind of large-scale psychological shock. The Iraqi elections were expected to offer that shock, but they didn't. The return of Saddam Hussein — a man every Iraqi knows, and whom many of them fear — would do the trick.

The disadvantages of reinstalling Hussein are obvious, but consider some of the upside. He would not allow the country to be dominated by Iran, which is the United States' major regional enemy, a sponsor of terrorism and an instigator of warfare between Lebanon and Israel. Hussein was extremely difficult to deal with before the war, in large part because he apparently believed that he could defeat any U.S. invasion if it came to that. Now he knows he can't. And he'd probably be amenable because his alternative is death by hanging.

I know why restoring a brutal tyrant to power is a bad idea. Somebody explain to me why it's worse than all the others.

5. Euphemisms Die Hard within Iraq Discussion -- by David Rossie

Q: Do this country's news organizations have a greater obligation to their readers and viewers or to the federal government?

A: Are you kidding?

Q: When does a euphemism become a lie?

A: When it no longer disguises the lie.

Q: When are the news organizations going to stop lying to the public?

A: Don't hold your breath.

In a speech he gave several months ago, Bill Moyers recalled asking News Hour host Jim Lehrer when he was going to start referring to the U. S. military occupation of Iraq as an occupation. Lehrer's answer: When the Bush administration starts calling it an occupation. Until then, he and his team would stick with the administration's euphemism "liberation."

Eventually, the administration got around to admitting that the occupation was an occupation, and the news services were free to, in Howard Cosell's ungrammatical words, tell it like it is.

Other euphemisms die harder. For example, everyone who can read between the lines and anyone who has been to Iraq knows there is a bloody civil war being waged there and that our troops are caught in the middle of it.

But just as in Vietnam, civil war has such a negative and unmanageable ring to it, the administration prefers insurgency, or sectarian violence, or in particularly bloody manifestations, "escalating sectarian violence." That reduces civil war to something on the order of an inter-family feud.

Of all the ugly euphemisms this war has given birth to, "contractor" is the most misleading and most odious. And it is one with which the media have come to terms.

In today's accepted parlance, a "contractor" is an individual, usually a former military specialist, who has signed on with a private company and has gone to Iraq to serve as bodyguard or armed escort for private construction or transport companies. And in some cases to guard U. S. generals and dignitaries.

Even the euphemism is a misnomer. These contractors, or security guards as they are sometimes referred to, are not contractors. They are what the soldiers and Marines in Iraq call them: mercenaries.

But mercenaries is such an ugly term. It invites comparison with those Hessians the British hired to help put down our own 18th century insurgency, later known as the Revolutionary War. Or those soldiers of fortune who more recently sold their services to African governments and rebel leaders alike.

Last weekend, it was revealed that five "contractors" employed by the Crescent Security Group" had been abducted in southern Iraq. American television carried tearful interviews with some of their relatives.

Less well covered was a court proceeding in Virginia in which two former "contractors" claimed they had been blacklisted by their former employer, Triple Canopy -- a private military contracting company, because they reported that their former supervisor had committed violent felonies possibly including murder against Iraqis while in their presence.

As a result of the blacklisting, the men argued, they have been unable to find similar employment in the burgeoning overseas private security business, jobs that pay on average $500 a day.

A friend said he was approached with an offer to join one of the contracting organizations when he was returning from active duty with the Marine Corps in Iraq.

The thought of making $200,000 a year for what he'd been doing on a sergeant's pay was tempting, he said, but not that tempting.

(David Rossie is associate editor of the Press & Sun-Bulletin.)

6. Sectarian Strife in Iraq Imperils Entire Region, Analysts Warn -- by Ellen Knickmeyer/Washington Post

BAGHDAD -- While American commanders have suggested that civil war is possible in Iraq , many leaders, experts and ordinary people in Baghdad and around the Middle East say it is already underway, and that the real worry ahead is that the conflict will destroy the flimsy Iraqi state and draw in surrounding countries.

Whether the U.S. military departs Iraq sooner or later, the United States will be hard-pressed to leave behind a country that does not threaten U.S. interests and regional peace, according to U.S. and Arab analysts and political observers.

"We're not talking about just a full-scale civil war. This would be a failed-state situation with fighting among various groups," growing into regional conflict, Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group, said by telephone from Amman, Jordan.

"The war will be over Iraq, over its dead body," Hiltermann said.

"All indications point to a current state of civil war and the disintegration of the Iraqi state," Nawaf Obaid, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adviser to the Saudi government, said last week at a conference in Washington on U.S.-Arab relations.

As Iraq's neighbors grapple with the various ideas put forward for solving the country's problems, they uniformly shudder at one proposal: dividing Iraq into separate regions for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and then speeding the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

"To envision that you can divide Iraq into three parts is to envision ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, sectarian killing on a massive scale," Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said Oct. 30 at a conference in Washington. "Since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited."

"When the ethnic-religious break occurs in one country, it will not fail to occur elsewhere, too," Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Germany's Der Spiegel newsweekly recently. "It would be as it was at the end of the Soviet Union, only much worse. Large wars, small wars -- no one will be able to get a grip on the consequences."

In an analysis published last month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Obaid said sectarian conflicts could make Iraq a battleground for the region.

Obaid described widespread interference by Iranian security forces within Iraq. He urged Saudi Arabia , which is building a 560-mile wall on its border with Iraq, to warn Iran "that if these activities are not checked," Saudi Arabia "will be forced to consider a similar overt and covert program of its own."

In Damascus, a Syrian analyst close to the Assad government warned that other countries would intervene if Iraq descended into full-scale civil war. "Iran will get involved, Turkey will get involved, Saudi Arabia, Syria," said the analyst, who spoke on condition he not be identified further.

"Regional war is very much a possibility," said Hiltermann, the analyst for the International Crisis Group. Iraq's neighbors "are hysterical about Iranian strategic advances in the region," he said.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad last month ranked Syria and Iran with al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the country's principal Sunni Arab insurgent groups, in terms of destabilizing influences in Iraq. Despite that assessment, the United States has not held substantive talks with Syria regarding Iraq since 2004 or with Iran since the war began in 2003.

Diplomats and analysts increasingly are urging the Bush administration to reach out to both countries as part of a regional approach to quelling Iraq's troubles. Former secretary of state James A. Baker III, leader of a panel preparing a set of policy recommendations for the Bush administration, already has endorsed the idea of seeking the help of Iran and Syria.

"The thing is, because Iran and Syria both have spoiling power in Iraq, if you could neutralize them," it would ease some of the many pressures within Iraq, Hiltermann said. But he said the two countries may demand a mighty trade-off: for Syria, U.S. help with its biggest stated aim, winning back the Golan Heights from Israel ; for Iran, U.S. compromise over its nuclear program.

Hiltermann acknowledged the difficulty. "I'm saying it's required," he said. "I'm not saying it's possible."

In Baghdad's Shiite stronghold of Sadr City late last month, aides to one of the country's leading Shiite clerics held a rally to urge followers to bide their time until the American forces leave the country. The rally was called by followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a strongly anti-occupation figure whose bloc is a leading partner in the current Shiite-led government and who is one likely claimant to power should the Americans withdraw.

"Will America win?" a speaker in a brown turban demanded before the more than 1,000 protesters, as a brewing storm whirled dirt and trash and pelted ralliers with drops of cold rain. Loudspeakers shot his question back across the square.

The men thrust their fists in the air, shouting their answer out to a grim, gray sky: "No, no! America will not win!"

Between 2 percent and 5 percent of Iraq's 27 million people have been killed, wounded or uprooted since the Americans invaded in 2003, calculates Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for International and Strategic Studies.

"This is civil war," he said.

Since midsummer, Shiite militias, Sunni insurgent groups, ad-hoc Sunni self-defense groups and tribes have accelerated campaigns of sectarian cleansing that are forcing countless thousands of Shiites and Sunnis in Baghdad to seek safety among their own kind.

Whole towns north and south of Baghdad are locked in the same sectarian struggle, among them the central Shiite city of Balad, still under siege by gunmen from surrounding Sunni towns after a bloody spate of sectarian massacres last month.

Even outside the epicenter of sectarian strife in the central region of the country, Shiite factions battle each other in the south, Sunni tribes and factions clash in the west. Across Iraq, the criminal gangs that emerged with the collapse of law and order rule patches of turf as mini-warlords.

Since the war began, 1.6 million Iraqis have sought refuge in neighboring countries; at least 231,530 people have been displaced inside Iraq since February, when Shiite-Sunni violence exploded with the bombing of a Shiite shrine in the northern city of Samarra, according to figures from the United Nations and the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration.

There used to be a time when Sunnis and Shiites "were living like family. We were married to each other, we all had Sunni friends, we all had Shiite friends. It was all like a balloon that exploded," a gaunt, weeping Sunni woman said in her bare apartment.

Until this year, the 41-year-old widow and former teacher -- who would identify herself only as Um Mohammed, fearing retaliation -- lived in Husseiniyah, a Shiite district of Baghdad. But after Shiite militias forced all the Sunnis out, she fled to a too-costly, too-small place in the overwhelmingly Sunni neighborhood of Sadiyah, on the western side of the Tigris River.

The Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, two militias loyal to the Shiite religious parties now governing Iraq, had taken over her old neighborhood by this spring, she said. Mahdi Army officials commandeered the two rental homes she relied on to support herself and her children. They forced the Sunni tenants out and installed Shiite families, who paid her rent through the Mahdi Army office, at a greatly reduced price set by the militia, the widow said.

Letters placed at the doors of Sunni families -- sometimes with bloody bullets tucked inside the envelopes -- warned Sunnis to leave. Shiite boys as young as 10 took to wearing the black clothes of the militias, and they promised her 10-year-old son, Ahmed, they would burn him alive in his house at night as he slept.

Um Mohammed reluctantly took her only other child still at home, a 15-year-old daughter, out of school and married her off to an older man in Sadiyah in a bid to provide her protection among fellow Sunnis. When Um Mohammed received a third letter threatening death, she and Ahmed finally moved to Sadiyah. Longtime Shiite neighbors sadly watched her leave but were too afraid of the militias to help her move, she said.

"I want to return to my home. But we are safer here," she said.

Across the Tigris River from Um Mohammed, another widow, Zayneb Khatan, a Shiite, sat in her equally plain new home. After gunmen shot and killed her husband in front of their home in the Sunni neighborhood of Cairo as he went to buy bread, Khatan fled with her 2-year-old daughter and the clothes on their backs.

"Some Sunnis are good," she said as she sat on a secondhand divan. "But I cannot say I will ever live among them again."


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