The report of his death found Abdulsemi Janabi in a meeting. His cell phone chirped, and through her sobs his wife told him that a radio station had just reported that his head had been found in one part of Baghdad, his body in another.
Janabi, a dean at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, assured his wife that he remained in one piece, safe and sound. He was on campus, sitting opposite a group of angry Shiite students demanding a prayer room and an office. In that moment, Janabi decided to take their demands more seriously.
Faced with the threatening broadcast and rumors that the students were supported by shadowy allies off campus, Janabi stopped going to work. His colleagues, who recounted the story, called his decision prudent in a city ruled by the law of the jungle for more than a year.
Violence, and the fear of it, defined everyday life in occupied Iraq long before the current insurgency. Ambushes, kidnappings and militias -- all the dangers lurking for Western visitors since last month -- emerged as dangers for many of Baghdad's 5 million residents shortly after the city fell in April 2003.
In the months that followed, while car bombs and attacks on U.S. forces grabbed the headlines, a relentless sense of insecurity eroded the patience of Iraqis, 92 percent of whom agreed that "freedom and democracy are meaningless without peace and security," according to a poll conducted in January for the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Much of the country has been badly destabilized by the recent surge in fighting aimed at forcing out U.S. troops. But Iraqis say that their society was already strained by the disorder that emerged whenever U.S. forces were not around -- a lawlessness largely unchecked by a U.S.-trained police force that many citizens regarded as ineffectual from the start.
"Is there any solution for this?" said Abu Fateh, cradling his gray head in his hands in a room crowded with friends of his nephew, a mechanic murdered in the Volkswagen repair shop the family runs across the street from their home. Ahmed died beside a co-worker in the kind of gangland killing that has become routine over the last year in a neighborhood in western Baghdad called Khadra.
The killers, who wielded German-made submachine guns and cleared out in seconds, seemed professional. The police did not. "They just came in their cars and watched from a distance," Fateh said.
The wonder is that any came at all. For months after a car bomb destroyed the district's police station in early November, an adjoining precinct deployed just 15 officers to the neighborhood, which has a population of 100,000 people.
"The police work sometimes. Sometimes they're tired," Ahmed Kadim Ibrahim, deputy interior minister, said on one of his last days on the job before heading to a position with Iraq's delegation to the United Nations. ("I need to learn politics," he explained.) Ibrahim spent a year working alongside U.S. overseers trying to build the national police force, which partially collapsed last month when some members joined insurgents and others simply surrendered the streets to men with guns.
"Three months ago you could see Iraqi police setting up checkpoints all over at night," he said. "Now, you cannot find them."
On paper, the force entered April at full strength: 70,000. But Coalition Provisional Authority figures show that fewer than 3,000 completed a two-month training course, and 55,000 were listed as "untrained."
"Police officers require long training," said Sameer Shaker Sumaidaie, Iraq's new interior minister. An effective force "cannot be produced by courses that take as long as boiling eggs."
The shortage of officers in the field is striking. At clogged intersections across the capital, traffic is often directed by teenagers wearing homemade badges and working for tips from drivers grateful that someone has taken charge.
"Ask the coalition why we don't work," said Ammer Adnan, a traffic cop who was still on duty in the Karrada neighborhood, despite the deaths of two colleagues the previous month.
"We welcome death!" his partner, Waseem Mehdi, declared. Adnan smiled: "You want to die, but I have a family!"
In the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, only four officers patrolled an area with a quarter-million people. "And their training is not catching up with what they need to do," said Sgt. Dave Scott of the 2175th Military Police Company, Missouri National Guard.
"It's just horrible here," Scott said, three weeks before insurgents took over the suburb, killing and kidnapping soldiers and American civilians in attacks on convoys crossing toward Fallujah.
The basics of force protection -- body armor, radios, pistols for traffic police -- have been delayed for months by a Pentagon procurement problem. "It's a terrible thing that we can't get these guys the equipment they need and deserve," said Col. Tom Knight, deputy commander of coalition forces in Mosul, a northern city where officers were assassinated at the rate of one every two days in March. On April 28, seven officers were killed in an ambush.
Across the country, more than 500 officers were killed in less than a year. Still, the job draws dozens of applicants for each vacancy. "I need a job," said Qaiser Hani, 23, explaining why he was applying. "Life has become cheaper."
In the security void, organized gangs have thrived.
Kidnapping accounted for 2 percent of major crime in Baghdad before the war. "Now it's over 50 percent," said Col. Faisal Ali Doseky, head of the kidnapping squad at Baghdad's major crimes division. He explained that much of the problem was a result of former president Saddam Hussein's decision just before the war began to empty the capital's main jail, putting hundreds of sociopaths back into circulation.
The morning he was interviewed, Doseky's squad had just arrested an alleged kidnapper. The accused was a portly man, who was seated downstairs with a bedroll under his arm and a smile on his lips. The alleged victim was a boy of 11 who had been killed despite the payment of a $10,000 ransom, after he recognized one of his abductors. His body was dumped in the Tigris River.
Most cases never reach the police, detectives say. "We have 40 detectives for all of Baghdad," Doseky said, seated at a desk he brought from home. "We used to have 100 for a single district."
Few places require policing more than Khadra, the Baghdad neighborhood where Ahmed and his colleague were killed at the auto repair shop, and which many professionals who belonged to Hussein's Baath Party call home.
Two students, at least one of them the child of a prominent Baathist, were snatched walking to or from the elementary school near the auto repair shop. For a time, residents said, this produced fearsome crossing guards: a daily show of U.S. armor outside the school around 1 p.m., when classes let out.
In postwar Iraq, violence is also organized on political lines.
After Abu Yusuf was killed in Khadra late last year, a delegation from the Shiite-based Dawa party attended the funeral. "They said, don't be hasty with your reaction. Let matters proceed naturally, collect information, and in time we will have some action," said a friend of the victim's family, who asked not to be identified because of concerns for his safety.
"You will find a military wing in every political party or movement, especially opposition parties based outside Iraq," said the friend, who was imprisoned by Hussein's government for working in the underground of such a party, the Iraqi National Accord. "They had active, secret organizations inside Iraq to do 'elimination' actions and assassinations to the leaders of the Baath and elements of the regime."
Months passed. Bodies piled up. A police colonel was killed after authorizing a Shiite parade. A writer for another exile party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was assassinated at an intersection by assailants using guns equipped with silencers. A market lady known for speaking against Sunni extremists was gunned down. Another woman was killed when she answered her door and a hand grenade was pitched into the house with the words, "This is for your son."
The targets were mostly Shiites, who, like Yusuf, were associated with the construction of Khadra's first Shiite mosque. Many regarded as payback the February murder of a Sunni imam rumored to have authorized a killing.
It is the sheer impunity of the killings that concerns residents most. "When the coalition was in the police stations, we never witnessed any crimes," Fateh said. "Everything was quiet."
"We won't have life if we don't have security," said the father of the dead mechanic. "We'll live like people live in the wood, and the strong man eats the weak. Unfortunately, this happened."
Professors at Mustansiriya University lament that the same lesson is being taught on campus. The school's officials, trying to shield the campus from the turmoil in the rest of Iraq, tread gingerly around the sudden absence of Janabi, the dean. Blame is cast not at the Shiite students who demanded a prayer room but at forces off campus.
It is a delicate balance. In his chemistry classes, Salah M. Aliwi tells students: "This kind of polymer does not come from religion; it comes only by hard work and science." But when a student once replied, "No, sir. Religion first, then the science," the professor let the challenge pass.
"Because I know what's next," Aliwi said. "He might misunderstand things. The problem with the dean started like this."
When U.S. troops swooped onto the campus last month, university officials considered the visit a major setback in their efforts to dispel the notion that might makes right. The soldiers kicked in 400 doors, leaving behind dusty boot prints and overturning file cabinets in a search for weapons that officials described as fruitless.
The raid came hours after soldiers detained a student for pasting a poster of Moqtada Sadr, the leader of a Shiite militia, on the university clock tower. Angry students responded by tearing up copies of the U.S.-published throwaway tabloid, Baghdad Now.
Two days later, the campus entrance was bedecked in banners condemning the raid: "The university campus is respected in all the world," read one in English. "Why is it insulted in Iraq?"
Fouad Saied, the college of science's registrar, shook his head. "No one is in charge, really," he said. "If what has happened in Iraq had happened in any European country -- without an army, without police, without secret police -- there would have been a catastrophe.
"So imagine what it's taken to keep the situation under control for one year."