BAGHDAD, Iraq—The rumors spread quickly last month around the central Baghdad neighborhood of Sab'ah Nisan that Salem Khudair's nephew had insulted the name of Imam Hussein, one of the most important historical figures in the Shiite branch of Islam. It fell to Khudair, the eldest son of a family from the Sunni branch, to meet with local Shiites and explain that his 26-year-old nephew had said no such thing.
A day later Khudair's family received a note insulting them as Sunni Muslims, calling them sons of whores. On March 27, Khudair was kidnapped.
What came next has become typical for Iraq as sectarian tension and violence rise. Khudair's family formed an armed group of more than 20 relatives and neighbors who are demanding Khudair's release and vowing to kill those responsible.
"If something happened to my brother, no Shiite would be safe," said Khudair's brother, Sameer, who's convinced that Shiite militia members are behind the kidnapping.
The political instability in Iraq and the ethnic divides behind it are pushing Iraqis toward gang-like violence that many worry could start a slide toward civil war.
For decades, Saddam Hussein, Iraq's former dictator from the Sunni minority, ruled the nation harshly, sometimes brutally suppressing the majority Shiite population. In January, Shiite leaders swept Iraq's national assembly election.
The recent unrest, though, rather than coming from the top leadership of political and religious parties, is springing largely from the grass-roots of Iraqi society. It involves neighborhood-based forces, with Sunnis and Shiites seeking to protect themselves from each other or to exact revenge, and it chips away at Iraq's national unity.
More than eight months after the interim Iraqi government announced that the nation's largest Shiite and Kurdish militias would disband, they're still functioning.
Sectarian suspicions about the nation's official security forces also spur the urge to take up arms. Many Sunnis view the Iraqi National Guard, the main component of the nation's army, as working for the Shiite political elite. Many Shiites, in turn, are deeply suspicious that officers loyal to Saddam and his Baath Party have infiltrated the Iraqi police.
Between the neighborhood militias and a general distrust of security forces, Iraq is a tinderbox waiting for a spark, said Hassan al Ani, a Baghdad University political professor and analyst.
"We can't forget what happened in Lebanon," he said, referring to the 15-year civil war there that killed thousands in vicious fighting between religious sects and their militias.
The nation's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued an edict last month telling his followers to obey and cooperate with Iraqi troops. While al-Sistani didn't give a reason for the guidance, a representative explained that, "without the help of the people, it's going to be hard for the security forces to keep any security in the country."
Sectarian political squabbles and the inability to form a national government have exacerbated the tension, many Iraqis say. Low Sunni voter turnout in the election resulted in a landslide win by the main Shiite political group, the United Iraqi Alliance, a strong showing by a Kurdish slate and a near-complete electoral failure by the Sunni political community. The alliance has 140 seats in the 275-member national assembly. Arab Sunnis have 17, and that figure includes a handful who ran on the alliance ticket.
The groups disagree loudly over how to form a government, and the assembly's second meeting fell apart over the question of making a Sunni the speaker.
"The center may not hold. If it survives the political process it may not survive the negotiations over the drafting of a constitution," said Joost R. Hiltermann, the Amman-based Middle East project director of the International Crisis Group, a think tank that tries to prevent and resolve global conflicts. "If that happens we're talking about civil war and the breakup of the country."
Adil Abdel Mahdi, Iraq's finance minister and a Shiite candidate for vice president, said the parallel tracks of political uncertainty and militias roaming the street are troubling.
"Imagine if you had a political crisis and each militia will go and support their party or political force, then you would have a very critical situation," he said. "Instead of having a political crisis, maybe you would have more than that."
Mahdi didn't mention that the security detail outside his home and office were from the Badr Brigade, the militia arm of the Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, of which he's a senior leader.
Asked about the Badr members in the street, wearing camouflage pants and T-shirts and carrying AK-47s, Mahdi's chief of security grinned.
"The guards are our followers; it is natural to use those close to us," said Azad Said. Asked why he didn't ask the police to keep Mahdi safe, Said said, "I don't trust them and I want to stay with those I know."
The problems become clearer at the street level.
In Baghdad's notoriously violent Haifa Street area, for example, many of the Iraqi troops who patrol the Sunni neighborhood are Shiite.
"The Shiite people believe that we are a Shiite militia, and so they welcome us," said Sameh Walid, a Shiite soldier based near Haifa.
Another soldier, Haider Jawad, said Shiite neighborhoods on the edges of Haifa have formed militias to enforce the sectarian boundary.
"One time a militia went to Haifa Street and said that if anyone in our neighborhood is killed we will respond by killing people in Haifa," Jawad said. "That militia is secretly funded by an sheik at a local Shiite mosque ... what's happening right now could be the beginning of civil war in Baghdad."
In Fallujah, a city that U.S. military commanders point to as the safest in Iraq since American forces retook it from insurgents, Sunni residents say anger toward Shiite troops is reaching a boiling point.
Bilal Faraj, who works in a fabric shop there, said he saw a young Iraqi soldier push an old Sunni man in the chest, a sign of disrespect not taken lightly in the heavily tribal area.
"He started to call us bad names, saying, `The sons of Fallujah are dogs,'" Faraj said. "He had `Ya Ali'"—a Shiite slogan of devotion—"written on the butt of his rifle. ... They should know that someday we will take our revenge."
There is talk, he said, of starting a militia.
(A special correspondent who cannot be named for security reasons contributed to this report from Fallujah.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.