BAGHDAD — They lurk in the pocket or purse of virtually every Iraqi, laminated clues that could land the holders in jail or seal their deaths.
As 16-year-old Muhammad Ali Ibrihim makes his way to school, he carries two ID cards. One is real, and reveals through his tribal name that he's a Shiite Muslim. He shows that card when he's stopped at checkpoints set up by the Shiites of the Mahdi Army militia.
The other is bogus, a forgery that describes him as Umar Ahmed Muhammad, a moniker that labels him a Sunni Muslim. He flashes that card at checkpoints manned by outfits tied to al Qaida and others that are hostile to the Shiite-dominated government.
Without both, he couldn't navigate the obstacles between his home in Baghdad's Khadhimiya neighborhood and his school in the Mansour district of the Iraqi capital.
He risks a five-year prison sentence for carrying a fake ID, however. "But that is better than being killed just for being a Shiite," he said.
Before the war, most Iraqis proudly chose to put tribal names on their official identification cards. Sectarian differences had yet to violently divide the country, and there was no reason to hide a tribal name, which, when linked on an ID with a hometown, is an undeniable indicator of whether someone is Sunni or Shiite.
But with sectarian violence raging, many Iraqis would like to replace their IDs with new official ones without their tribal names. That would let them stop carrying fake IDs. The government, however, refuses to let them.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which is headed by a Shiite from southern Iraq, said no one was required to list a tribal name when his or her ID card was issued, generally shortly after birth. Changing those cards now would let dangerous people cloak their true identities, Abdul Karim Khalaf said.
"We have an extraordinary situation that might be used by some terrorists," he said.
Even government officials carry false IDs. One top-ranked official confessed that he keeps a forged ID for protection. It's a prerogative, he said, of government rank.
"In Syria, I'm Abdullah," he said proudly, touting his fake name. Of course, he asked that his real name not be published.
Measuring three and a half by four and a half inches — about the size of two standard business cards — the national identification card is required of all Iraqis, even children. It holds much the same information as a passport: a head-shot photo, date of birth, place of birth, gender, parents' names, height and weight, blood type, marital status and spouse's name, a few ink stamps and signatures. Relatively new IDs also bear the carriers' thumbprints.
The card is larger and flimsier than an American driver's license and is made with fewer anti-forgery measures. With the exception of a rudimentary, postage stamp-sized hologram on foil, the credential could be duplicated easily on a standard home computer. Bogus cards can be had on the black market for $30 to $40.
The government would like to have an ID that's harder to fake. Plans are to contract with a foreign firm to make more elaborate cards, though it's unclear how soon.
Baha'a al Araji, a Shiite member of parliament's legal committee and a follower of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, said that when that new technology arrived, Iraqis would have the option of including or deleting their tribal names.
But not yet. To do so now, he said, would give criminals and members of Saddam Hussein's fallen Baathist regime a way to "escape from justice."
Ordinary Iraqis, in the meantime, simply want a way to escape assassination.
Baghdad physician Hussein Ali Abbas, a Shiite, thought he'd hit on a solution by using a card that identified him as Joseph Butris, a Christian. He's light-skinned and can bluff his way through a conversation about Christianity.
That avoided the Shiite-Sunni rivalry, and he needed only to worry about police busting him for carrying a fake. Now, though, Christians have become targets for kidnappings and killings. So he's going to buy a phony Sunni ID.
"This will cost me," he said. "But it may save my life."
Zaineb Abdul Kadhim Khlifa is a Shiite married to a Sunni man. Moving about in their Sunni neighborhood with her husband, she's safe. But when she goes somewhere alone, she produces a fake ID to pose as a Sunni. She fears that she'll be arrested by police for her forgery or by gunmen who discover the authentic card.
"Everything," she said, "is risky."
(Kadhim and Hussein are McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents. Scott Canon of The Kansas City Star contributed to this report.)