Nadir Hamid Shamkhi has not stepped outside since March 24, when she retrieved her kidnapped husband's tortured body from a Baghdad morgue, buried him, and fled to her relatives' house in Risala – a slum in southwestern Baghdad.
Ms. Shamkhi is counting on the black Shiite flag that flies from her sanctuary's roof to protect her from the militants. But she is not certain it will. Too afraid of being recognized in the streets by members of the Shiite militia that killed her husband, she hasn't even filed a claim with the government to receive the $1,800 compensation for his death.
American commanders say Risala is a stronghold of Shiite militias that have splintered from the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Though Mr. Sadr's army agreed to a cease-fire with Iraqi government forces on May 11, the offshoots in Risala have not abided by it and are using this area as a staging ground for mortar and rocket attacks on two American bases in the capital.
The US relies heavily on informers to come forward with information about the militants in a bid to thwart the militias. But widespread fear of retribution stops most Risala residents from helping the US forces crack down on the militias.
"People have said: 'We don't want your tip cards' [leaflets with a number of an anonymous telephone line to report suspected militant activity ]'because if we're caught with them we'll get killed,' " says US Army Capt. Sean Chase, from Seattle, Wash., who is stationed in Risala.
Shamkhi's story is a gruesome reminder of what can happen to those suspected of collaborating with the Americans.
On March 19, her husband, car mechanic Naman Jabar, was chatting with his neighbors in the street when a car pulled up. Men in black masks grabbed Mr. Jabar, and forced him into the car. Then, they went to Shamkhi's house and knocked on the front door.
Shamkhi answered, and, by her account, the men pulled her out of the house, handcuffed her, gagged her with tape, put another strip of tape across her eyes, stuffed her in the trunk, and drove off.
They held her for three days, she says. They told her that her husband worked for the Americans. They slapped her face. They stripped off her clothes.
"I cannot repeat what they did to me," says Shamkhi, blinking away tears and wrapping her black abaya tightly around her. "I am an old woman. It is shameful."
Three days after the kidnapping, Shamkhi's captors blindfolded her, gagged her, tied her hands, put her in a car, and then dumped her on the side of a highway in southern Baghdad. Two days after that, she says, she received a call from the morgue of Al-Yarmouk hospital, asking her to identify Jabar's body.
As Shamkhi recounted her tale in a cramped kitchen, a group of American soldiers searched the rest of the house. A rare informant had told them that the leader of a Mahdi Army splinter cell lived in this house, and the soldiers were searching the rooms for weapons and questioning Shamkhi's son, Karam, in a bedroom behind a closed door. Despite what happened to his parents, he might have connections with militants, the Americans explained.
"People here are intimidated into joining JAM special groups," says Spc. Tyler Lipford, using the military acronym for the Sadr militia's Arabic name, Jaish al-Mahdi. "Special groups" is the term the military has coined to refer to Shiite militants who have splintered off from the Mahdi Army. "They threaten their families: either you help us or we'll hurt your family."
The splinter militias also extort money from local residents and scare them into hiding and trafficking weapons, say US soldiers.
During a recent raid, Iraqi police officers discovered a ledger of several thousand names of militia members, says Captain Chase. But that does not necessarily mean that the people listed in the ledger are directly participating in attacks on US and Iraqi forces, he adds. "It's hard to tell how many of these guys are doing stuff and how many are just members because it's the only way for them to stay alive and stay in the neighborhood," he says.
In the streets, the stench of raw sewage rises from the unpaved roads where underground sewage pipes have burst and now are leaking. Mounds of trash choke the streets. US officers say the Shiite militias use intimidation to prevent the Iraqi government from providing services. In an area that gets less than four hours of electricity a day, militia members started operating generators to power some of the houses. "If I deny you basic services, I can blame it on whomever I want and then come and be your savior," explains Maj. Kelly Dickerson, a civil affairs officer from Richmond, Va.
When the American soldiers are about to leave, Shamkhi pulls out a cellphone from the folds of her abaya. On the screen is a picture of her murdered husband. "He didn't do anything wrong. He was not rich, but he made me happy. We were in love," she says. Tears well up in her eyes. "Iraqis are acting like criminals."