The streets were almost deserted in the gray light before sunrise as the blind sheik, guided by a young boy, walked slowly home from his small mosque after leading the morning prayer on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan.
At the corner, the sheik, Ahmed Khudayer, was hit by a volley of bullets and fell to the ground, slain along with his brother Waleed and the boy, Tayseer.
Khudayer was Sunni. The neighborhood is largely Shiite, the majority Muslim sect in Iraq whose members were viciously oppressed under Saddam Hussein. And Khudayer's family believes he was targeted because of his faith.
Although terrorist bombings have dominated the headlines, a spiraling number of assassinations across this troubled country is exposing other violent currents at work. These riptides of vigilante justice, sectarian violence and resistance to the U.S.-led occupation are pulling apart Iraq's neighborhoods -- and signaling a new kind of lawlessness.
"During the former regime, the government ruled with an iron fist, but now since Saddam Hussein is gone, there is a security vacuum," said Tahani Kadhim, 35, the sheik's widow, wearing a black mourning dress. "People such as the ones who killed my husband are encouraged by this -- they want to create strife among groups, to trigger a civil war."
The recent assassinations in Iraq are hardly the first since the end of major combat was declared in May, but the rapid proliferation of the phenomenon is startling.
In just the last three weeks, one of Baghdad's three deputy mayors was killed; the police chief of the southern city of Amara was cut down by an assassin's bullets; a pioneering Iraqi journalist in the northern city of Mosul was shot in the back and killed; at least two Sunni clerics were assassinated; there was an attempt on the life of a moderate Shiite cleric; and at least six former high-ranking officials of the Mukhabarat, Hussein's intelligence agency, were gunned down.
A close look suggests that no one group is responsible for the killings of recent weeks. The lack of any single culprit indicates that assassination may have become a terrorizing tool used by all sides.
For instance, remnants of Hussein's regime appear to be carrying out selected hits -- whether on police chiefs or members of the new U.S.-backed government -- as a way to discourage Iraqis from helping to form a new order here.
And opponents of the old regime who lost family members to its brutality fear that many of those responsible will never be brought to justice, so they are taking revenge into their own hands.
The attacks on Sunni religious leaders appear to be sectarian, instigated by the majority Shiites. At the grass-roots level, the two Muslim branches have gotten along, so some Iraqis conjecture that outside groups seeking to sow suspicion and unrest are behind the killings. As for the attacks on Shiite clerics, local police believe they are the result of rivalries among moderate and more radical Shiite factions.
Assassinations are difficult to preempt, especially when used as a tactic by many groups at once, said Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who recently spent several months in Baghdad advising the Interior Ministry. The key is intelligence, he said. But overall, he said, the phenomenon is hardly surprising in a postwar environment.
"For the most part, this is no different from the postwar situation we saw in Bosnia and Kosovo," Kerik said, noting that retribution killings were a factor in both places in the Balkans. He said some police were being executed because, unbeknownst to the Americans, they were members of the former regime who had "wormed their way back into positions of power" and their communities angrily dealt with them.
However, Kerik said he was hard put to account for the killing of clerics. The solution is more Iraqi police, more Iraqi military, more Iraqi forces, he said.
On Saturday, the chief administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, vowed to speed up the training of Iraqi forces in a bid to combat the attacks on civilians. By next September, he said, more than 200,000 Iraqis will be serving as police officers, soldiers and border guards, if Congress completes the appropriation of $20 billion in additional funds.
For the victims of these killings and their families, it is already too late.
In at least three cases, the victims knew before they died that their days were numbered. With the exception of the Mukhabarat members, many of whom suspect that they are targets but receive no formal warnings, the victims knew they were at risk and decided to continue the work they believed in.
On Tuesday, journalist Ahmed Shawkat, an Iraqi Kurd, went to the roof at his newspaper offices in Mosul to use his satellite telephone. A few minutes later, his son Sindbad and his daughter Roaa, both of whom worked with him at the paper, heard two shots.
When Sindbad rushed up the stairs, he found his father with a bullet hole in his back and another in his right hand -- a symbolic attack on his writing, Sindbad believes. Doctors could not save him.
Sindbad had urged his father to travel with a bodyguard, or at least a gun, after Shawkat received a written threat signed by someone who said he was "a Muslim speaking for all Muslims," but Shawkat refused.
Just days before, his father had told him, "The word 'fear' is not in my dictionary," he said.
Shawkat, a soft-spoken middle-aged man who trained as a biologist before becoming a journalist, was filled with plans when Hussein's regime ended. Persecuted by Iraqi security forces for his outspoken critiques of the regime when Hussein was still in power, he had fled to the semi-independent Kurdish areas in the north, but when the dictator was toppled, he returned to Mosul, his native city, and started the independent newspaper Bilattjah, which means No Direction.
The weekly's articles criticized all sides but supported the idea of a partnership with the Americans.
Roaa also believes that her father was targeted because he had written a book, "Shabbak: The Forgotten Kurds," which argued that Shiite Kurds were the true founders of ethnically and religiously divided Mosul. Some Arab academics maintain that Sunni Muslims founded the city.
Her father had a deal with a publisher to print the book, she said, but the man refused to distribute the finished work because he also had received threats.
The assassinations range wildly in sophistication. The failed attempt Wednesday on the life of Abdul Mehdi, a spokesman for the moderate Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, was amateurish -- a grenade flung by a bicyclist as the cleric and his acolytes left the evening prayer, injuring Mehdi and six others.
But the killers who executed one of Baghdad's deputy mayors, Faris Abdul Razzaq Assam, on Sunday appear to have been professionals.
Muatasim Abdul Razzaq Assam, 42, who spoke lovingly of his brother wearing "just his slippers and a track suit to a nearby public cafe to sip his tea" before he was killed, said each step of the assassination was choreographed.
Two cars pulled up. Two gunmen got out. One, armed with a Kalashnikov, loosed a barrage of bullets over the heads of the teahouse patrons. The other attacker, who was armed with a handgun, shot five bullets into Assam's chest. Then the assassin dashed into one car while his partner continued firing to cover the escape before fleeing in the second car.
Muatasim Assam said it was hard to know who was responsible because his brother was widely liked.
"It is possible it is remnants of Saddam," he said. "But it's also possible these are people from outside Iraq who want to create as many problems as they can in order to suck America further into the internal affairs of Iraq because they're among those also targeted for change by the Americans."
U.S. officials believe that Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, neighboring countries where the United States is urging political change, have allowed foreign fighters to enter Iraq.
Assam, like Shawkat and some of the police chiefs who have been killed, had many plans for the new Iraq. He was part of the delegation to the recent Madrid donors conference for Iraq and had just returned the day before he was killed. When he came home and saw his mother, "he was so excited," his brother said. "He said: 'Mother, I just came from abroad and I have gotten you $4 billion for Baghdad. I am going to make Baghdad a paradise for you.' "
But he too had received warnings that his days could be numbered -- although he did not want to believe it, his 15-year-old son, Yusef, said. He said his father had made him promise not to frighten the family by telling them of the threats.
Like many of the victims, Khudayer also had received a warning -- a nightmarish one. The blind cleric also made the decision to stand up to the unseen menace.
"When he was standing at the entrance to the mosque, he would hear the voices of passersby whispering, 'We are going to kill you sooner or later,' " said his widow, who, after her husband was blinded in the 1980-88 war with Iran, had read aloud to him the Koran and commentaries on it so that he could become a sheik. "Because they knew he could not see them, they would haunt him with whispers."
Now the family is planning to move away from the neighborhood -- a step Khudayer would have resisted, his widow said, just as he resisted her pleas to stop going to the mosque.
"He was a faithful Muslim," she said. "He believed in destiny, and after the warnings, he said to me, 'Whenever destiny comes, I will face martyrdom in the face of God. It is impossible to leave the mosque empty of preachers.' "
Salar Jaff of The Times' Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.