In the aftermath of one of the deadliest spasms of violence, a new level of fear and foreboding has gripped Baghdad, fueled in part by sectarian text messages and Internet sites, that is deepening tensions in an already divided capital.
In interviews across Baghdad on Saturday, Sunnis and Shiites said they were preparing themselves for upheaval, both violent and psychological. They viewed the bombings that killed more than 200 people Thursday in the heart of Baghdad's Shiite community of Sadr City as a trigger for more reprisal killings.
"We feel our world has become narrow, and we are being squeezed," said Karar al-Zuheari, 31, a Shiite taxi driver. "We have no place to run."
Since those attacks, in mixed and majority-Sunni neighborhoods, quasi-armies of residents have formed to protect their streets. Sunni Web sites are offering advice on how to kill Shiite militiamen. College students and executives pace in their homes, clutching rifles and handguns round the clock. Iraqis are posting pleas on Internet message boards to buy extra ammunition and weapons.
Despite a government-imposed curfew, Iraqis described Shiite militiamen murdering Sunnis at checkpoints, controlling neighborhoods with impunity and conspiring with Iraq's majority Shiite police force, which the Interior Ministry controls. Other Iraqis spoke of mortar shells raining on their mosques and gun battles outside their houses, deepening their mistrust of Iraq's security forces and elected politicians.
Over the past two days, warnings have spread through messages delivered to the cellphones of Sunni Muslims. In Arabic, they read:
"Very big armed groups are being formed in Sadr City, backed up by the Interior Ministry, to kill great numbers of the citizens of Baghdad once the curfew is lifted. Spread the word among our people."
It signed off: "A reliable source."
Yet amid the fear gripping this city of 7 million, there were also signs of Iraq's famous cohesiveness, even as the sectarian divide widened. In some mixed neighborhoods, Shiites provided shelter to Sunnis targeted by Shiite militiamen, even though they risked being branded as collaborators. Others took care of Sunni children or bought groceries for Sunni neighbors who feared walking to the local market.
Outside their houses, the revenge attacks raged on. Gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms rounded up 21 men, including a 12-year-old boy, from two Shiite homes in the village of Balad Ruz , 45 miles northeast of Baghdad in Diyala province. On Saturday morning, their bodies were found, all handcuffed, blindfolded and shot to death, said Bahaa al-Sodani, a provincial police official. The attacks were in apparent retaliation for assaults by Shiite militiamen on Sunni mosques in Baghdad and Baquba the previous day.
An informant’s nod
"This is taking a turn for the worse," Hussam Sammaraie, a Sunni Muslim cellphone company executive, said on Saturday.
Less than two hours after car bombs, mortar shells and missiles bombarded Sadr City on Thursday, Shiite militiamen had taken over a checkpoint in front of his house in the New Baghdad neighborhood. The gunmen, clutching AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, were members of the Mahdi Army, the militia run by Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who controlled Sadr City.
As Sammaraie watched from his front gate, two militiamen stopped a Sunni man who worked in an electrical shop. A local informant looked at him and nodded. Then one of the gunmen shot him dead and left. Two weeks ago, the electrician had complained loudly when Shiite gunmen attacked a nearby Sunni mosque.
Zuheari, Sammaraie's neighbor, also witnessed the killing. At that moment, he felt hatred for his own sect. "We don't accept this behavior from our own people," he said.
Sammaraie also shook, not out anger but fear. Once a mixed neighborhood, New Baghdad has seen its Sunni population leaving in droves since February, when the bombing of a Shiite shrine in the town of Sammara set off waves of sectarian violence. Now Sammaraie and his family are the only Sunnis on his block.
A half-hour after the electrician was killed, policemen arrived to investigate. The militiamen who committed the crime came along.
"It was the same murderers — I saw it with my own eyes," said Sammaraie.
Since Thursday, he said, he has stayed inside his home. He carries his AK-47 and 60 bullets everywhere, even to bed. "I hug my AK-47 more than my wife," said Sammaraie.
His two small daughters don't understand. His 14-year-old asked him why he carried a gun all the time. He replied: "Do you want your dad to get killed?"
At night, he heads to the roof of his house, a cup of coffee in one hand, his AK-47 in the other. From there, he scans the streets for militiamen.
But if his house gets attacked, he will turn to Zuheari for help. Zuheari said he can't forget when Sammaraie's relatives offered shelter to his family during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Now it's his turn to return the favor. The men placed a ladder against a wall in Sammaraie's back yard. If Shiite militiamen appear, Sammaraie and 16 relatives will use it climb over the wall and into Zuheari's home.
"If the Mahdi Army finds out we are supporting a Sunni, maybe they will turn against us," Zuheari said. "They will think we are collaborators. This is a big problem. We don't know what will happen. I have one AK-47. We cannot do anything."
Still, Zuheari warned Sammaraie on Friday when he received a text message from a Shiite friend in Sadr City saying that the "young people of the Mahdi Army have taken revenge on the Sunnis." Without revealing the message, "I told him he should move his family inside my house," said Zuheari.
Defending the neighborhood
Luaa Abdul Hade, 21, knew it was his job to protect his sisters and mother. So he grabbed the family's only gun — an AK-47 — and joined the approximately 300 young men who have formed a quasi-army to guard the neighborhood of Ghazaliya since violence erupted there on Thursday after the Sadr City bombings.
Since then, the full-time student has slept just four hours. The nights have been cold, but he makes do with a coat. People in the neighborhood cook meals for the guards. Some of the men go back home for rest. Others sleep at a nearby mosque. If any major attack takes place, the mosque will announce it.
"It's our neighborhood," Abdul Hade said. "If they want to attack us, we're going to go out and defend our neighborhood."
Abdul Hade said that he and the other men his age did not know how to defend the neighborhood, so residents with war experience became their advisers, telling them where to stand and what to do. Four or five young men stand on every street corner or roof. Older men guard their houses. They have blocked off entrances to the community with stones, branches and other materials.
In the meantime, Abdul Hade's three sisters and mother remain home, praying regularly and keeping themselves busy by surfing the Internet, talking to friends on the phone and watching TV. A mortar blast already destroyed one of their windows, so now they have blankets on the windows to prevent glass from flying around.
On Friday, gunmen in more than 40 cars drove into Ghazaliya to shoot at houses, he said. The neighborhood army shot back, until U.S. forces intervened. It happened again Saturday morning.
"If they came into our neighborhoods, what would they do with our families?" Abdul Hade said. He said he is not afraid to die to protect his family and home: "We do believe in destiny. We do believe in God."
Recipe for civil war
On the Iraq Rabita Web site, created for Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, is a big black square with red Arabic lettering.
It reads: "Defend Yourself."
Click on it and you find this message.
"The curfew will not affect the sectarian killing militias. The Americans will not rush to help you," reads the message. "The entire world around you is not concerned about what happens to you. The evil people want to pluck you off one by one. So rush to your weapons and defend yourselves and use this page to inform us of what's going on in your areas and launch rescue calls."
On Saturday, the Web site displayed a recipe for civil war. It recommended protecting Sunni neighborhoods by "spreading snipers on the roof of buildings," planting roadside bombs at the entrances to neighborhoods and distributing grenades. It advised "antitank missile holders" to make trenches and to attack the first and last vehicles of any convoy.
At the end were instructions for preparing ambushes by "attracting the enemy by using small cars as bait so they would chase them and be dragged to the killing zones."
‘To whom it may concern’
In the Wihda district on Baghdad's southern outskirts, Haqi Ismaeil's brother called him at work on Thursday to tell him not to come home. Their family, and 30 other Sunni families in the area, had received a letter that morning signed by something called "the punishment committee." It was addressed to Sunni extremists and loyalists of Saddam Hussein, but in fact it referred to all Sunnis.
"Warning, warning, to whom it may concern," it read. "The Wahhabis and Baathists and Saddamists, leave our country or we will punish you."
Their small Sunni enclave is surrounded by a large Shiite community. But the Sunni and Shiite families generally have gotten along. When they had problems, the Sunni families would invite local Mahdi Army representatives to dinner to smooth relations. It usually worked, Ismaeil said.
After the letters arrived, Shiite residents visited the Sunni families to offer them support. "They've become more like family to us," he said.
Heeding his brother's advice, Ismaeil, 24, spent Thursday night at a friend's car dealership outside Baghdad. He sneaked back to check on his family the next day, and does not intend to go to back to work.
The family has one weapon, an AK-47, and it will remain next to Ismaeil's bed until the family can find another place to stay. But it won't be easy, he said. There are 11 of them living together.
The Mahdi Army has set up checkpoints across the town. "We are really terrified and living in horror," he said.
A rupture of trust
On Palestine Street, Fehad Galib heard the rumors. The Mahdi Army had rounded up 150 young Sunni men like him and took them to Jamila Market, the area in Sadr City of where two of Thursday's car bombs exploded. Then they executed the men. There was another rumor — that the Interior Ministry was handing out police uniforms to the Mahdi Army.
That is why Galib was reluctant to allow his kid brothers to stay with some Shiite neighbors his family has known for decades. "We don't have complete trust in them," said Galib, 21, a college student who carries an AK-47. His 17-year-old brother carries a Smith and Wesson handgun.
The family, he said, plans to move. "When they lift the curfew, we're going to move straight to Tikrit," Galib said, referring to former president Saddam Hussein's home town. "Maybe the next day the Mahdi Army may storm our house."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Naseer Mehdawi, Salih Dehema and Waleed Saffar contributed to this report.