Tensions over the killings in the area focused on the town of Madain, where rumors that Sunnis are kidnapping and killing Shiite townspeople were rife. Some Shiite national leaders have warned of sectarian war. In Shiite strongholds, there were threats of retaliatory violence against innocent Sunnis.
Even with accusations about Madain circulating on the streets, in newspapers and on television, Iraq's Interior Ministry waited a day to place a call to the town to ask about the situation.
U.S. soldiers secure a road leading to the dangerous Baghdad airport highway after a car bomb exploded in the capital, killing one Iraqi and wounding seven.
(Khalid Mohammed -- AP)
The ministry's police had withdrawn from the town long ago, and phone lines were bad, said Sabah Kadhim, a ministry spokesman. Journalists noted that police waited three more days, after plenty of notice, to send forces sweeping through the town, only to say they had found neither kidnappers nor hostages.
Meanwhile, officials describe setbacks in the security situation in the Sunni Muslim city of Husaybah on the Syrian border, near the area where fighters tied to al Qaeda had staged the second of two well-planned attacks on a U.S. military installation this month. An Iraqi army unit that had once grown to 400 members has dwindled to a few dozen guardsmen "holed up'' inside a phosphate plant outside of Husaybah for their protection, a Marine commander said.
Maj. John Reed, executive officer for the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, which has a company in Husaybah, said the Iraqi guardsmen retreated to the phosphate plant compound with their families after insurgents attacked and killed scores of people in recent months.
"They will claim that they've got hundreds ready to come back and fight," said Reed, whose company seldom patrols inside Husaybah. "Well, there are no more than 30 of them on duty on any given day, and they are completely ineffective."
At Tarmiya, along the heavily Sunni-populated banks of the Tigris, Shiite recruits sent by the government usually stay well out of town unless accompanying U.S. patrols, a correspondent for The Post observed. Police officers man a station inside Tarmiya, but they are Sunnis from the same tribes as the townspeople. Even they are seldom seen.
In city after city and town after town, security forces who had signed up to secure Iraq and replace U.S. forces appear to have abandoned posts or taken refuge inside them for fear of attacks.
''We joined the police, and after this, the job became a way of committing suicide,'' said Jasim Khadar Harki, a 28-year-old policeman in Mosul, where residents say patrols are dropping off noticeably, often appearing only in response to attacks.
Tips from Mosul's residents have dropped off as well, with residents doubtful that police can protect informants from retaliation. When a school principal in Mosul saw insurgents place explosives outside the gates of a police station next door, the principal didn't tell police -- only quietly dismissed pupils for the day, townspeople said.
The Interior Ministry is a distant force to which the police appeal for supplies, Harki said, "but they rarely respond."
Guerrilla campaigns also are fought psychologically, by intimidation, Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., said in a telephone interview. Along that line, this month has shown a return of grim videos showing distraught hostages and executions, while daily bombings make every trip out of the house a calculated risk for Iraqis.
"Insurgencies can't necessarily be measured in attacks but in overall security," Hoffman said. "It's still enormously uneven even in country's capital."
He pointed to the downing of the helicopter north of Baghdad's airport and to bombings along the airport road that have claimed dozens of injured and dead this month.
Iraq's political leaders acknowledge increasing pressure from the United States and Iraqis to wrap up a government to deal with the violence.
"It's natural that our friends would be pointing" to the problem, "as well as our constituents," said Barham Salih, the former interim deputy prime minister and a lead figure for the Kurds in the government formation talks.
"There is a serious security challenge, and we will be held to account," he said.
For residents of Baghdad, where security forces that are comparatively well engaged have been unable to stop daily bombings, the return to violence has already brought some residents to despair.
"This is terrible," said Waleed Sharhan, outside a mosque where two children were among the nine dead from a bombing Friday. "There is no hope that this country will be better."
Correspondent Steve Fainaru at the Syrian border and special correspondents Naseer Nouri at Tarmiya, Marwan Ani in Mosul and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.