Three apparently coordinated car-bomb attacks in Baghdad and Karbala killed around 30 people Sunday, as Iraqi politicians said they were near agreement on cabinet posts for a new government that they promise will come to grips with the country's deteriorating security situation.
The morning blasts were accompanied by reports that the bodies of about 45 men were found in various parts of Baghdad within 24 hours from Saturday morning. Most were bound, some bearing signs of torture, and all shot in the head.
Ever since the Feb. 22 bombing of a major Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra touched off dozens of reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques, Iraqis have reported a sharp rise in attacks at the hands of both Shiite and Sunni Arab death squads.
A Baghdad health official says there have been at least 2,500 murders in the capital since the Samarra shrine attack, adding that those numbers don't include the victims of mass-casualty attacks like those Sunday.
Today, Baghdad appears to be more divided and war-torn than at any point since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Most basic services are at an all-time low (Baghdad is averaging about three hours of power a day) and traditionally mixed Shiite and Sunni Arab neighborhoods continue to feel the impact of the slow seeping away of their diversity as families flee across the city's confessional front lines.
Now, in addition to the four or so well-organized and armed nongovernment militias operating in this diverse city, small armed neighborhood militias are springing up in dozens of neighborhoods.
At around 9 p.m. each night, they roll palm trunks, rusty barrels or other obstacles onto the streets, trusting their protection to no one but themselves, say many residents of Baghdad.
"We've been told over and over that the political process is going to make us safer, but all we see are parties fighting over ministries so they can get jobs and money for themselves,'' says Ahmed, who helped organize a neighborhood militia in Baghdad's Al-Amal district. "If we don't protect ourselves, no one will."
Ahmed, a Shiite who asked that his full name not be used, says his decision to take action came after two pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the back and filled with men wearing Interior Ministry commando uniforms streamed down his street at the end of February and took 17 men away.
His father's best friend - "we weren't related but I called him uncle" - was one of the men taken, after the men came to his door and asked for him by name. And Ahmed was among the young men that found the bodies of all 17 in a ditch the next morning, most bearing signs they'd been tortured with drills before their deaths.
"We called the ministry as soon as they were taken,'' he says. "They said they didn't know anything about it."
The good news about Ahmed's group is that it is a mix of Shiites and Sunni Arabs, and is being given a relatively free hand to control the neighborhood. He says a friend in the government got them the frequencies for 20 hand-held radios that they use to coordinate their checkpoints, and US patrols don't bother them.
"The humvees just roll right on by now,'' he says. "When we started, the Americans came to us, said they know we're guards, and told us as long as we don't point our weapons at them everything should be OK."
Still, more and more of the city's residents are being pushed into the arms of militias, many of which have either political agendas, are involved in criminal activity, or both.
The owner of an auto-parts store in downtown Baghdad says he is visited once a month by a group of men with pistols tucked under their shirts, demanding $300 in protection money. "They say they're with the insurgency and that they're protecting me from worse things,'' he says. "Who knows the truth ... I just pay. We all pay."
Abu Omar, a barrel-chested Sunni Arab and former policeman, knew who his attackers were at the end of last month. He was living in Baladiyat, a neighborhood in East Baghdad on the edge of Sadr City, which has 2 million residents who are more or less controlled by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
Around midnight, seven cars roared down his street. One of the vehicles, a Toyota Landcruiser, burst through his front gate while men with rifles, grenades, and black masks poured into his yard, breaking the windows in his car and at the front of his house with their rifle butts, shouting "where's Omar, where's Omar,'' the name of his 18-year-old son.
Omar scrambled over a back fence and found safety in a neighbor's house, while his father was taken away for five hours of interrogation. "They told me that they were from the Mahdi Army and I thought these were my last moments on earth,'' he says. "But after a while they got a call, and decided to let me go. But they also told me they'd kill my son when they got him."
Abu Omar says the men told them they were killing all young men named Omar and Bakar - popular Sunni names borrowed from early Islamic caliphs hated by Shiites. They said they would be back for his son. After his release he called the police for protection. "They told me that close to Sadr City there's nothing they could do for a Sunni."
The next day, like hundreds of Iraqi families, both Shiite and Sunni Arab, he fled his old neighborhood. In his case, he sought safety in a Sunni area to the west of the Tigris.
Despite promises from Iraq's new Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that Iraq's militias would be reined in, groups like the fighters loyal to Mr. Sadr - who helped Mr. Maliki secure his new post - are becoming more assertive.
When a British helicopter was shot down in the largely Shiite southern city of Basra Saturday, killing the five men aboard, about 300 of Sadr's supporters rallied to attack British forces, who were moving to secure the wreckage and search for survivors, with Molotov cocktails and stones, setting four British armored vehicles alight.