BAGHDAD, Iraq—Swadi Ghilan's two sons were dropping their sister off at high school earlier this year when a carload of Sunni Muslim insurgents pulled up and emptied their AK-47s into their bodies. In broad daylight his children were torn to pieces, their blood splashed against the windshield as they screamed and died.
Ghilan is a major in the Iraqi army and a Shiite Muslim, the sect that makes up some 60 percent of Iraq's population. Now, more than ever, the grieving father says he wants to hunt down and kill not only Sunni guerrilla fighters but also Sunnis who give those fighters shelter and support. By that, he means killing most Sunnis in Iraq.
"There are two Iraqs; it's something that we can no longer deny," Ghilan said. "The army should execute the Sunnis in their neighborhoods so that all of them can see what happens, so that all of them learn their lesson."
The Bush administration's exit strategy for Iraq rests on two pillars: an inclusive, democratic political process that includes all major ethnic groups and a well-trained Iraqi national army. But a week spent eating, sleeping and going on patrol with a crack unit of the Iraqi army—the 4,500-member 1st Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Division—suggests that the strategy is in serious trouble. Instead of rising above the ethnic tension that's tearing their nation apart, the mostly Shiite troops are preparing for, if not already fighting, a civil war against the minority Sunni population.
Ghilan's army unit is responsible for security in western Baghdad, where many Sunnis live. But the soldiers are overwhelmingly Shiite, and, like Ghilan, they're seeking revenge against the Sunnis who oppressed them during Saddam Hussein's rule.
U.S. officials hope that Saturday's constitutional referendum will help salve the nation's wounds. Many of the Shiite officers and soldiers said they look forward to the constitution and December elections for a different reason. They want a permanent, Shiite-dominated government that will finally allow them to steamroll much of the Sunni minority, some 20 percent of the nation and the backbone of the insurgency.
American commanders often refer to the 1st Brigade as a template for the future of Iraq's military. It was the first in the nation to get its own area of operations, the tumultuous western side of the Tigris River in Baghdad, and one of the first to take over a base from U.S. forces. It's one of the rare Iraqi units with a command competent at the brigade level, instead of just smaller company or battalion-based units.
The Iraqi troops consult with American advisers daily. On big raids in dangerous areas, the Americans often take the lead with their superior firepower.
But day to day, the Iraqi officers mostly run their own show, carrying out most of the patrols and running checkpoints without help. Increasingly, however, they look and operate less like an Iraqi national army unit and more like a Shiite militia.
The brigade last week raided the home of Saleh al-Mutlak, one of the most prominent Sunni politicians in the country, a day after an Iraqi soldier was shot and killed in the neighborhood. Soldiers said some gunfire had come from the direction of Mutlak's house during the raid on his neighborhood.
Arab satellite news stations carried images of a car with its windows smashed in Mutlak's driveway, and Mutlak held a news conference, saying that the soldiers who came into his home were thugs.
Sgt. Maj. Asad al-Zubaidi said Mutlak was lucky he wasn't shot.
"When we are in charge of security the people will follow a law that says you will be sentenced to prison if you speak against the government, and for people like Saleh Mutlak there will be execution," Zubaidi said. "Thousands of people are being killed by Saleh Mutlak and these dogs."
The soldier who was gunned down in Mutlak's neighborhood was with a group manning a checkpoint when he went to a nearby shop to buy cigarettes. A dark BMW with gunmen pulled up; three shots to the head later, the soldier was on the ground.
The brigade leader, Brig. Gen. Jaleel Khalif Shwail, drove to the site less than an hour after the shooting. The sidewalk was covered in blood, "like a sheep had been slaughtered," Shwail said.
"These people in Amariyah are cowards," he said, his voice full of rage as he stood at the spot where his soldier had fallen. "I swear, I swear I'll have revenge."
The shop owner was rousted from bed. He said over and over that he had nothing to do with the killing and he begged the soldiers for mercy.
Maj. Saad al-Mousawi, an intelligence officer with the brigade, shouted at the man to shut his mouth.
"Even if you people, you Sunnis, roll tanks on our heads we will not give this country back to you," Mousawi said. "It's ours now."
The brigade and its sectarian leanings has alarmed not only Sunnis in the area but also other Iraqi military commanders.
They said they worry that a mostly Shiite military unit will follow religious clerics before national leaders, risking a breakdown in the army along sectarian lines.
Although the U.S. military hasn't released statistics, anecdotal evidence from reporting in the field over two years suggests that a disproportionate number of soldiers are Shiite, except for a few units that are mostly Kurdish.
"It is a mistake," said Col. Fadhil al-Barawary, the Kurdish commander of the Iraqi army's commando battalion, housed on the same base with the 1st Brigade. "The danger is that when there is strife between Sunnis and Shiites in the neighborhoods it creates problems" with loyalties.
Barawary continued: "It's a total mistake to have soldiers taking orders from the marja'iya. It puts us all in danger." Barawary was referring to the ruling council of Shiite clerics, whose word is law for most Shiites in Iraq.
Shwail, the 1st brigade's top officer, regularly reviews important decisions, including troop distribution, with a prominent local Shiite cleric who's closely aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite religious figure in Iraq.
During a recent meeting with his officers, several of them asked Shwail why he didn't send more troops to the troubled Sunni neighborhoods of Amariyah and Ghazaliyah when he has more than 1,000 patrolling the streets of Kadhemiya, the Shiite neighborhood where the brigade is based and the site of a major Shiite shrine.
Shwail told the officers that Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr had informed him that the troops must stay in Kadhemiya to protect the Shiite faithful.
"Sayyid Hussein al-Sadr has more influence than (Prime Minister) Ibrahim Jaafari," Shwail said, using an honorific title. "The battalion in Kadhemiya won't be moved from there for the next 100 years."
The officers looked at each other, dismayed. Their men, stretched thin in the insurgent hotspots, are shot and killed regularly.
"But sir, we need more troops," one officer said.
"The problem," Shwail said, "is convincing Sayyid Hussein al-Sadr."
Some Iraqi troops went a step further, saying they were only awaiting word from the marja'iya before turning on American forces. Although many Shiites are grateful for the overthrow of Saddam, they also are suspicious of U.S. motives. Those suspicions partly stem from the failure of the first Bush administration to support a U.S.-encouraged Shiite uprising against Saddam in 1991. Saddam suppressed it and slaughtered thousands.
"In Amariyah last week, a car bomb hit a U.S. Humvee and their soldiers began to shoot randomly. They killed a lot of innocent civilians. I was there; I saw it," said Sgt. Fadhal Yahan. "This happens all the time. If they keep doing this, the people will attack them. And we are part of the people."
Sgt. Jawad Majid chimed in: "We have our marja'iya and we are waiting for them to decide when the time to fight (the Americans) is, when it is no longer time to be silent."
Posters and flags of Shiite religious figures adorn trucks and office walls throughout the brigade.
A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad familiar with Iraqi army operations said American officers are concerned about the lack of Sunnis in the Iraqi forces and have started a massive recruiting campaign. In the past three months, some 4,000 Sunnis have been recruited and are undergoing training, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
"We never intended to create a Shiite army," the official said. "Clearly, one of our number one concerns going forward ... is sectarianism ... that revenge mentality."
The official said he was unaware of any Sunnis being rounded up and killed by the army.
"I hope it's all just talk," he said. "You can't stop what's in a man's mind, and you can understand it with what they've (Shiites) gone through. But there's no place for it in a national army."
The Shiite troops are angered both by the thousands of Shiites who were killed and buried in mass graves during Saddam's Sunni-backed rule and by the huge number of Shiite casualties suffered from fighting Sunni insurgents.
When they roll through the Shiite neighborhood of Kadhemiya in pickup trucks, the Iraqi troops see men saluting them and yelling, "Heroes! Heroes!" Little children salute and smile.
But as soon as they cross into nearby Sunni neighborhoods, the troops lean out of the trucks with AK-47s and shoot above the cars in front of them to clear traffic. When they jump out of the trucks to clear crowds, the men frequently mutter, "Shit on Saddam."
Riding in one of the trucks is a chilling experience. The trucks have no armor, exposing men in the back to AK-47 fire. Hitting a roadside bomb, a favorite insurgent weapon, would probably kill most on board, as would a car bomb.
At least 300 of the brigade's roughly 4,500 troops—the numbers fluctuate with casualties and resignations—have been killed and 1,350 have been wounded during the past two years. They take gunfire daily and frequently are targets of suicide car bombers and mortar barrages.
Adhemiya, on the eastern bank of the Tigris, across from the 1st brigade's base, is a Sunni neighborhood. Snipers on rooftops shoot at troops sitting in courtyards in front of their barracks.
In the Sunni stronghold of Amariyah, where guerrilla fighters control entire blocks, snipers shoot around troops' flak vests, targeting faces and, from the side, vital organs. The results are horrific—soldiers are brought back to the base in ambulances and on the backs of pickups trucks with blood pumping out of their necks.
Last week, as Sgt. Hussein Jabar manned a checkpoint underneath a bridge, a sniper's bullet pierced his left side, tore through his organs and flew out his right side. Iraqi troops carried him away, his body limp and pouring red onto the sidewalk.
His fellow soldiers screamed and threw their AK-47s on the ground in frustration as Jabar was taken first into a medical triage unit and then to an American helicopter, which took him away for surgery. He's still under U.S. care.
Two days after the shooting, Sgt. Ahmed Sabri stood outside the Umm al Qura mosque, home to the militant Sunni Muslim Scholars Association. The mosque is just down the road from where Jabar was shot.
"Every man we've had killed and wounded is because of that mosque. Thousands and thousands of Shiites are being killed, which is why they're joining the army," Sabri said. "Just let us have our constitution and elections in December and then we will do what Saddam did—start with five people from each neighborhood and kill them in the streets and then go from there."
Asked if he worried about possible fighting between his men and the Sunnis at Umm al Qura, the brigade's command sergeant major, Hassan Kadhum, smiled.
"Your country had to have a civil war," he said. "It will be the same here. Everything in this world has its price. In Iraq the price for peace will be blood."
Kadhum thought the matter over for a few more moments.
"There will be a day when we take that mosque and make it an army headquarters," Kadhum said.
(A Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent who isn't named for security reasons contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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