Religious and political leaders in Iraq are scrambling to forestall further sectarian bloodshed in the aftermath of a provocative series of car bombings against Shiite targets that threatens all-out civil war.
Half a dozen blasts killed more than 50 people in the Shiite slum of Sadr City on Sunday, raising the one-day death toll around Baghdad to at least 80. Gunmen of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia deployed in some areas as Iraqis braced for a resumption of sectarian killing.
Politicians are struggling to fill a leadership vacuum that has delayed the sitting of the new parliament - seen as a crucial step toward a unity government that could check Iraq's violent spiral - until Thursday. But Iraqi and American officials are warning that sectarian abuses such as torture and summary executions, by illegal militias and official forces alike, are leading Iraq deeper into civil war.
"If the army and police and [US] forces don't cooperate to control the street, we will see more killing that will lead to civil war," says a Shiite Iraqi police colonel, who asked not to be named.
The firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to avoid revenge, for now. "I could order the Mahdi Army to root out the terrorists and fundamentalists but this would lead us into civil war and we don't want that," Mr. Sadr said Monday. "So, I will keep calling for calm."
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said the bombings aimed to "inflame sectarian strife and fan the fires of civil war," and called on deadlocked political factions to "intensify" efforts to create a government that can "achieve security and stability."
Numerous corpses appear on the streets of the capital daily, often handcuffed and showing signs of torture. Most are Sunnis, killed by alleged death squads operating with little accountability inside the Shiite-dominated Ministry of Interior (MOI).
Nine more Iraqis died Monday, including seven policemen. The bodies of four Shiites were also found Monday in Sadr City, apparently tortured, with a sign that read "traitors."
"It's mostly revenge, revenge - it's sectarian revenge," laments the police colonel. "The police always find the bodies. People come, and I ask them: 'Who killed your sons?' They say: 'The commandos [of the MOI] came in the night.' "
The spike in tensions is spurring US-backed marathon crisis talks among Iraqi leaders who began Monday to shape a national unity government. US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad says there was an "urgent" need to fill the "vacuum in authority" as attacks mount by "terrorists to provoke sectarian conflict."
A nighttime curfew is meant to stop all nonofficial traffic so that only Iraqi security forces can get through checkpoints. But an array of security organs - often unaware of what each other are doing, or even who they are - has meant little accountability.
Interior Ministry police effectiveness is "seriously compromised by sectarian influences of militias," notes the 2005 US State Department Human Rights report for Iraq, released last week. "The police - particularly the Special Police - abducted, detained, and tortured individuals. According to a variety of reports, police engaged in extrajudicial killings, particularly of members of the Sunni Arab minority."
In this "climate of extreme violence," the US report said, "reports increased of killings by the government or its agents ... [and] criminals, insurgents, and terrorists undermined public confidence in the security apparatus by sometimes masking their identity in police and Army uniforms."
The report quoted Baktiar Amin, Iraq's former minister for human rights, saying a year ago that MOI detention centers were a "theater of violations of human rights."
Further complicating the picture is the fact that most high-profile attacks have been carried out by Sunni insurgents against Shiite civilians and holy places to spark sectarian war. The destruction of the gold-dome Askariya shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22 revealed the dire possibilities: well over 500 Iraqis died in the aftermath, many of them Sunnis.
Iraqi and US officials say they are moving to solve the problems. Sunni defense chief Saadoun al-Dulaimi and Interior Minister Bayan Jabr - who has close ties to the Shiite Badr militia - announced on Sunday a new plan for joint military-police arrest operations.
Those arrested would be given a receipt indicating the arresting unit, and US-led coalition officers would closely observe investigations. Mr. Dulaimi said the changes will "help us a lot" in knowing who detains those who are later killed.
US officers involved in training Iraqi security forces have also announced plans to triple their number of training teams, and to reach a police force level of 200,000 by early next year. Initial focus by the US on building the military - at the expense of focusing on the police forces - has now given way to recognition that professional police units will be crucial to maintaining order.
One advertisement playing on TV shows two boys talking about what their fathers do. One boy is in awe to hear that his friend's father is a policeman, "who fights the criminals with one hand" even when he runs out of bullets. The father arrives in his blue uniform, and both boys jump up to salute him. The ad applauds the "Knights of Iraq."
But lack of trust, especially among Sunnis, is pervasive.
One former detainee from a mixed neighborhood in west Baghdad describes how 30 MOI commandos in eight official vehicles stormed his house one night in late January, shooting dead his uncle, who was startled from sleep, and accidentally shooting his mother in the hand.
The 25-year-old jobless Sunni, who spoke anonymously, was handcuffed and driven away with two brothers and his father. They were four of 27 Sunnis picked up from the area that night, he says; 21 remain unaccounted for. They were not taken to a police station, but held hooded for a day in a house.
"Every 15 minutes, someone would come and kick us and beat us and call us names," recalls the ex-detainee. He points to a scar on his forehead, where he says he was hit with a rifle butt. After nightfall, the brothers' hoods were replaced by a strip of cloth over their eyes.
"We suspected we might be killed, and our bodies thrown in the streets," he says. Instead, after being driven through the streets and hearing rifles being loaded, the brothers were forced out into a ditch, and told to count to 30 before opening their eyes, or they would be killed.
The detainee's father, who had helped organize a neighborhood militia to protect Sunnis, has not been seen again. The sons say that the militia helped his area get through the sectarian bloodshed of February, without a single loss.
"Many Sunni families have left this neighborhood - they are tired of the attacks. Everyday there is killing," says the son. "We are angry at the commandos. I am a peaceful man, and hate violence."
While some Shiite officers sympathize, they are also torn by competing influences: desire to work on behalf of all Iraqis; their Shiite roots; and anger at the violence. Security forces have borne the brunt of insurgent attacks for two years.
"My people, the Shiites, are being unfairly attacked," says a major in the Public Order Brigades, which enforces the curfew and can carry out joint raids with US backup. "Most terror attacks are against the Shiites. I want to keep the people, the home, the country safe, but my spirit is with the Shiites."
"When this [sectarian] fighting happens, usually we stop our work and don't interfere, because they come from the same [Shiite] side, and there are not very strong orders to stop them," says the major.
Only a strong government, enforcing tough laws, will enable Iraqi police to help disband militias, says the officer. But stopping the demand for revenge may be harder. He tells a story of "peaceful" Shiite family in Abu Ghraib. Sunni gunmen stopped cars, pulled people out, while asking if they were Shiite or not. Sunnis were let go; the Shiite family was killed.
"What will poor people think when they hear that?" asks the major. "We do not encourage it, but they want revenge for the Shiites."