baghdad -- The expressway skirting the Amil neighborhood in Baghdad is only a couple of miles from Mahmoud Mekki’s home, but it might as well be a hundred.
To reach it, Mekki must pass checkpoints guarded by Iraqi police commandos who he says are really Shiite Muslim militiamen trying to drive Sunni Muslims out of Amil.
So Mekki, a Sunni, remains holed up in his home, dependent on sympathetic Shiite neighbors to pick up his groceries and run other errands.
“I ask you to help us!” Mekki sobbed on the phone late one hot July night. “I don’t want democracy! I just want security.”
Iraqi and American military officials say incidents of sectarian “cleansing” in Baghdad have decreased since a U.S. military clampdown began in February, but what is happening in Amil and neighboring Bayaa belies the claim.
Since May, Iraqi police say, more than 160 bodies have been found in Amil and Bayaa -- men without identification, usually shot and bearing signs of torture, hallmarks of sectarian death squads.
On many days, the number of corpses found in the two neighborhoods account for half of those picked up across the capital. Before the war, Amil and Bayaa were middle-class neighborhoods where Sunnis and Shiites lived easily among one another. Now, not only are they mainly Shiite, but they have become prime territory for Shiite militias looking to expand into the surrounding Sunni-dominated areas.
Representatives of Al Mahdi, the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, blame the violence on Sunni extremists linked to the group Al Qaeda in Iraq. Sunni leaders blame Al Mahdi men. Residents say that Iraqi security forces are complicit in the violence, and that there aren’t enough U.S. forces to stop it. U.S. and Iraqi military officials say the problem isn’t as bad as they say.
At a news conference June 20, Iraqi Brig. Gen. Qassim Musawi, a spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, declared the situation in both neighborhoods “under control.” U.S. Army Maj. Kirk Luedeke, a spokesman for the American unit deployed in the areas, said the violence was “not a cause for alarm.” He said the number of bodies being found had dropped considerably since January.
“We’ve had extremist actors in the area. We’re aware of that. When we get word of their activities we investigate and we take action,” he said. “All we can continue to do is work closely with our Iraqi security force partners.”
Residents say they enjoyed a period of relative calm at the start of the Baghdad security crackdown in mid-February, when Iraqi army soldiers were deployed in Amil and Bayaa.
It was short-lived.
In April, a Sunni mosque in Bayaa was heavily damaged by a bomb. Since then, scores of people have died in car bombings in Amil and Bayaa. Amid the carnage have been assassinations and abductions.
Talal, a Sunni, fled Amil after two men were fatally shot at a gas station near his home, and a doctor, a pharmacist and a baker he knew were killed. All were Sunnis.
His wife, a Shiite, and 10-year-old son visited their old house frequently, but stopped two months ago after two women -- a Sunni and a Shiite -- were killed for allegedly helping Sunnis. They were accused of being spies, said Talal, who did not want his full name used. He said his son later saw the veil of one of the slain women burning in the street.
“We don’t know who they are,” Talal said when asked about the killers. “They just come in and kill.”
Abu Zahara, a teacher in Bayaa, said Al Mahdi militiamen took to the streets after the May bombings, which police and residents blamed on Sunni Arab militants. After that, long-simmering sectarian tensions began to soar.
Abu Zahara, a Shiite, said he was passing a Sunni mosque one day and heard calls over the loudspeaker for attacks on Shiites. Bombs began appearing outside Shiites’ homes, and Sunnis received warnings to leave.
“These gunmen think they have a cause,” said a Shiite man, Abu Sara, referring to Al Mahdi and to the police, who he said overlook militia activities. “They are protecting Shiites.”
Abu Sara, who runs a business in Amil, said the Iraqi soldiers had been unable to stop attacks on Sunnis and the car bombings blamed on Sunni extremists because they spent most of their time running checkpoints at busy intersections.
An official at the local Sadr office agreed.
“The Iraqi army is very weak in facing the terrorists. They are only setting up checkpoints on the main roads and can’t get inside the dangerous neighborhoods,” said the official, who did not want his name used for fear of being targeted for his affiliation with the Shiite cleric.
He denied that Al Mahdi was trying to drive out Sunnis and said the group offered social assistance to residents of both sects.
“You can’t call the people militias,” he said. “They are only civilians defending themselves from Al Qaeda.”
Some Shiites agree, and their view of the situation underscores the dilemma most Iraqis face as they weigh their craving for security against their distaste for militias.
“I think the militia guys came because they’re tired of always being the ones attacked. I think they said, ‘OK, we can’t let these explosions take place and kill our families,’ ” said a Shiite woman from Amil. She said she dislikes the militia presence but that the Sunnis started the problem. “I don’t think they initiated this,” she said of the Shiite militias, who residents say have checkpoints at every neighborhood entrance.
Abu Sara agreed that things had quieted down, for Shiites at least, since the militias had arrived, but at a cost. Now, he said, militiamen openly dump bodies in ditches and cover them with rubble, and hand out the victims’ cars, guns and other possessions to young recruits.
People who witness crimes are afraid to speak up. This fear, mixed with bitterness over bombings, is turning everyone into a silent co-conspirator, Abu Zahara said.
“The problem is that even good Sunnis don’t condemn the bad Sunnis, so sometimes now the Shiites might do bad things to innocent Sunnis, but good Shiites stay quiet,” he said.
The few Sunnis remaining are clustered in a section called Janabat, where Mekki lives. It is a working-class area of just a few blocks. For now, it is his world.
Each night, he and several neighbors get together to pass the time. They say they have no electricity, no running water, and no means to buy fuel for their generators. They sleep on their roofs to stay cool, and they use a wood fire to bake bread.
One of them, Ali Hamoudi, said militiamen take shots at them if they venture too far from their homes. Al Mahdi fighters chant pro-Sadr slogans to irritate the Sunnis, he said. When his brother tried to pass a checkpoint, he was stopped. “They beat him,” Hamoudi said.
Asked why he had not left, Mekki said, “I have lived here all my life. Would it be easy for you to leave your house, your neighborhood?”
Times staff writers Saif Hameed, Mohammed Rasheed and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.