Foot patrol

Foot patrol: U.S. soldiers conduct sweeps throught the streets of downtown Balad on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006. (Borzou Daraghi / LAT / November 7, 2006)

BALAD, IRAQ — There were no heroes here.

When gunmen murdered dozens of people in this once peaceful Shiite market city over two days last month, no one stepped in to stop the killing. Not U.S. forces, whose stated purposes in Iraq include preventing all-out civil war. Not the Iraqi security forces, who mostly turned a blind eye to the massacre. Not the people of Balad, who allowed decades of fear and hatred to overwhelm their better instincts.

Perhaps nothing could be done. Perhaps Iraq's Shiite-Sunni feuds have become so heated that not even 140,000 U.S. soldiers can stop the country's increasingly brutal civil war.

"They hate each other," said one U.S. officer in the Balad area, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on matters pertaining to Iraqi society. "How are you going to get rid of that? You're not going to give these guys sensitivity classes."

Balad, a city of 120,000 up the Tigris River from Baghdad, lies less than 15 miles from Logistics Support Area Anaconda, the largest U.S. military base in Iraq. A small forward operating base, Camp Paliwoda, lies just outside the city. But U.S. troops stuck by the mantra of letting Iraqis take the lead and gave the Shiite-dominated police force latitude as townspeople went on a murderous rampage.

"We didn't think it would happen on this scale," said Capt. Mark T. Jenner, intelligence officer of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, which was in the process of handing over the area to another U.S. unit when the slayings occurred.

Perhaps the most chilling thing about the massacre in Balad was that it was not the work of outside death squads. According to Iraqis and U.S. intelligence officials, it appears to have been the work of Shiite residents who turned on their neighbors.

"The ordinary people, some of them took their guns and did this thing," said Amira Baldawi, a Shiite member of parliament who is from Balad. "The city is under pressure all the time. There is a reaction to every action."

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Usual calm is broken

The killings began on a Friday afternoon, normally the day of rest in Muslim countries. Ajeel Mujamaie, a 30-year-old high school teacher of English and Arabic, was rushing his pregnant wife, Fadhilla, to the hospital and could tell that the usual calm of the day had been broken.

"There was a lot of tension and commotion in the area," he said.

Mujamaie got Fadhilla to the delivery room, then scouted the hospital for a doctor. He ran into a security guard he knew, a man named Abbas who was a relative by marriage. Abbas warned him to get out.

"He told me I have to leave," Mujamaie said. "He told me they will kill me."

Soon gunmen swarmed the hospital, aided by some of the employees. "They were from Balad," Mujamaie said of the men who guided the gunmen from room to room. "They were saying: 'Take this guy. Don't take this guy.' "

As Fadhilla writhed in pain, Abbas, who wore a police uniform, slipped the couple into their car and headed for a midwife outside the city center.

Across Balad, Sunnis like Mujamaie and his wife had begun to flee.

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Deep-rooted tensions