For Hassan Abu Mohammed, the trip from Baghdad to the sacred Shiite Muslim city of Karbala was ritual, started by his grandfather and adopted by his father. Each week during the holy month of Ramadan, he loaded a car with enough chicken, rice, lentil soup and kibbe, a dish of ground lamb and bulgur wheat, to feed at least 150 people.
The tradition brought blessings, he said.
Ramadan has ended, and these days, he said, he would need more than faith to set out on a road that is probably the most perilous in a perilous country, traversing a lawless, seething region he and others have nicknamed "the Triangle of Death." At the thought of another journey, Abu Mohammed, a cheerful man with a beefy face, shook his head and threw out his arms. His eyes grew wide. "Fear," he said, was the reason to stay put. "If a car passes through there, it will burn. I'm not ready to give my soul to them."
As the offensive against Fallujah ends, U.S. military commanders have begun turning their attention to other restive regions of Iraq, where an insurgency in Sunni Muslim-dominated areas has proved resilient, possibly endangering nationwide elections scheduled for Jan. 30.
The land immediately south of Baghdad, shared uneasily between a Sunni minority and the Shiite majority, is among the most treacherous, a swath of territory where residents say insurgents have imposed draconian Islamic law, offered bounties for the killings of police, National Guardsmen, Shiite pilgrims and foreigners, and carried out summary executions in the street.
Police don civilian clothes when they pass through the flat landscape of date palms and eucalyptus trees, intersected by canals fed from the Euphrates River and crossed by roads leading to the sacred cities of Najaf and Karbala. Stoking sectarian tension, Shiite militiamen and armed tribesmen have threatened to avenge the deaths on their own terms. U.S. military commanders have made taming the region a priority and are drawing up plans to send in Army armored units.
"It's an area with a real mix of bad guys -- thugs and criminals as well as terrorists," a senior officer at the U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad said. "The terrorists move in and out along . . . lines that stretch in all directions."
The land unfolds west from the Euphrates. At the top of the triangle is Mahmudiyah, a town of low-slung, ocher-colored buildings. To the west is Yusufiyah. At the southern end is Iskandariyah. In between is Latifiyah, acknowledged as the most dangerous of the towns. Men in checkered red head scarves or balaclavas, usually with AK-47 assault rifles, set up checkpoints daily, sometimes by blocking a street with a car, residents say. At one point, they blew up a bridge over a canal to divert traffic and make cars easier prey.
An Iraqi reporter who passed through Latifiyah last week said armed assailants had stopped a police car, killed the four men inside, then set fire to the vehicle. When he drove through the next day, the car and charred corpses were still there. On Nov. 4, at least 12 National Guardsmen were abducted and killed. A month earlier, nine policemen died in an ambush there.
Heeding warnings, policemen have resigned, some of them publicizing their decision by posting their names on mosque walls, residents said. Rumors have swirled through the town of insurgents offering bounties: $1,000 for a policeman, $2,000 for a member of the National Guard, $10,000 for an Iraqi journalist or translator and even more for a foreigner. It was along the road to Najaf that two French journalists disappeared Aug. 20. The men, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, are still missing.
"Who knows when they'll attack?" Abu Mohammed said.
He has had close calls twice. Nearing one checkpoint, his driver spotted armed insurgents and turned back to Karbala. At another checkpoint, the driver quickly took down the popular posters of Shiite saints that adorn the windows of many vans plying the road. The driver then put in a tape celebrating the Sunni insurgency in Fallujah, chants set to a drum.
"Bravo to the people of Fallujah and the bullets that support them," one of the songs goes.
Hearing the tape, the insurgent waved them through, he said.
"Go, my uncle," Abu Mohammed recalled a bearded gunman saying, using an Arabic term of endearment.
In the poor streets of the sprawling Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, where thousands once made the two-hour trip to the shrine cities, drivers of minivans, taxis and small buses sat idly last week, waiting for passengers and pilgrims.
"Everyone's scared of Latifiyah," said Rahman Abdullah, 35, as he dragged on a cigarette.
In the past, during the annual three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, Abdullah made 10 trips to Najaf or Karbala. This year, Abdullah made three trips during Eid last week, and his white minivan was usually half-empty. "It used to be that before you would finish your tea, the van was already full," Abdullah said, standing on a buckling sidewalk. "Now all you do is sit and drink tea -- today, tomorrow and then the next day."
'If you kill a Shiite, you go to paradise'
A particularly militant strain of Sunni Islam within the insurgency, Wahhabism, has chilled many Shiites. To the most ardent of the insurgents, Shiites are heretics, even apostates, for the prominence they give Ali, the prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, who Shiites, unlike Sunnis, believe was Muhammad's divinely sanctioned heir. Under Islamic law, apostasy carries the death penalty.
Each driver had a story: Abdullah was following a van carrying a coffin that was stopped at a checkpoint last month, destined for the vast Shiite cemetery in Najaf. The men at the checkpoint tossed the body on the street, doused it with gasoline and set fire to it, he said.
Assad Qassim, another driver, nodded in agreement. He was following another van stopped by seven gunmen. They forced the young men to get out, then ordered them to insult Ali. Two men refused, he said, and were bundled off and apparently killed.
"They act according to their own religious edict: If you kill a Shiite, you go to paradise," he said.
"It's like they're bringing chickens from the market and slaughtering them," said another driver, Haider Abdel-Zahra.
In a country where rumors often serve as news, accounts come up in conversation after conversation. Whatever their truth, they are believed. Last week, residents traded stories about a young man with long hair who was forced into a car by insurgents. His body showed up at his father's house a few days later, with a gunshot to the chest and some of his hair pulled from his scalp. A letter left on top of his corpse warned that death was the fate of those who disobey Islamic injunctions. Residents also spoke of a woman whose body was left in the street. Though she was wearing a veil, they said, she was apparently killed for wearing pants, which some deem un-Islamic.
In several Shiite mosques, prayer leaders have denounced the killings in their sermons, and the bloodshed has unleashed fears of sectarian strife. The Mahdi Army militia of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr is said to be operating in the region, and tribesmen whose relatives were among the 12 National Guard members killed by the insurgents rampaged through the area this month, burning four homes, residents said. In the southern city of Basra, a group calling itself the Brigades of Fury was formed this month, ostensibly to help protect pilgrims, the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat reported.
"Who hurts me, I hurt them," Abu Mohammed said, his words as much a lament as a threat.