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 Latifiyah, south of Baghdad, insurgents routinely target travelers on what is called Iraq's most treacherous road.
(Mohammed Uraibi -- AP)
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."
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.
Staff writer Bradley Graham, special correspondent Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.