Dan Murphy

Shrine Bombing Deepens Divides

An attack Wednesday that destroyed the soaring gold dome of one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines is being interpreted by most Shiites here as a direct attack on their faith -- and has sharply raised sectarian tensions.

It's unclear if any people were killed in the massive explosion in Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. But the destruction of the shrine may be the most emotionally charged of attacks on Shiite targets thus far in the war, and could set back already hamstrung efforts to form a government of Shiite and Sunni unity.

As citizens deserted the streets of Baghdad in the wake of the attack, many said they feared this could be a seminal moment in Iraq's low-intensity civil war.

"The war could really be on now,'' says Abu Hassan, a Shiite street peddler who declined to give his full name. "This is something greater and more symbolic than attacks on people. This is a strike at who we are."

The attack occurred shortly before 7 a.m. in the largely Sunni city of Samarra, which has remained an insurgent hotbed despite years of U.S. operations there. It was carried out by a small group of men who somehow gained access to the usually heavily protected Askariya shrine, set demolition explosives, and then fled.

Though the shrine dates back 1,000 years, it has been rebuilt numerous times. Its current dome was built in 1905. There are no records of previous attacks on the building or its predecessors.

"This could be a tipping point,'' says Juan Cole, a historian of Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan. "At some point, the Shiite street is going to be so fed up that they're not going to listen any more to calls for restraint."

Within hours of the attack, tens of thousands of angry Shiites -- many of them members of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army who brandished rifles and rocket-propelled grenades -- took to the streets in at least least a half-dozen central and southern Iraqi cities. A spokesman at Mr. Sadr's main office in Baghdad said the militiamen were acting spontaneously, and had not been ordered out onto the streets.

The Iraqi and U.S. militaries scrambled forces in Baghdad and other cities in an effort to protect Sunni mosques. U.S. soldiers cordoned off the approaches to the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad's Sunni- controlled Adhamiya district.

Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most respected cleric, issued a statement forbidding attacks on Sunni mosques and calling for seven days of national mourning. But in a rare move, he also called for public protests. Ayatollah Sistani has typically called for even peaceful protesters to stay off the streets, fearing a downward spiral into violence.

Ayatollah Sistani "has the coolest and wisest head in Iraq, but this has chaos written all over it,'' says Mr. Cole. "He must know the likelihood of these protests being completely peaceful is low, so he's got to be absolutely furious to call for people to come out on the streets."

Eyewitnesses in at least four cities reported attacks on Sunni mosques. Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the biggest Sunni groups, said at a press conference that 29 Sunni mosques were burned across the country and demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice. He also dismissed Shiite protesters as "rabble," a term favored by Saddam Hussein to refer to Shiites.

Meanwhile, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the cleric who leads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the country's two most powerful Shiite parties, and which has ties to the Shiite Badr militia, threatened reprisals in an interview with Sharqiya TV.

"If the government can't protect us then we will have to do it ourselves,'' he said.

He also said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is partly to blame for Wednesday's attack. The ambassador has made a number of forceful statements this week urging Shiite leaders to give Sunni Arabs a bigger say in government than they won at the ballot box, and has warned against allowing groups like SCIRI, which he deems overly "sectarian," from seeking to control security posts in the next government.

Mr. Khalilzad's "statements created more pressure and gave a green light to terrorist groups, [so] he shares part of the responsibility," Mr. Hakim said.

Shiite leaders like Hakim frequently use the word "terrorist" as a blanket term for Sunni political groups that have ties to the insurgency, and which Khalilzad would like to see join the next government.

In much the same way that a Danish newspaper's cartoons of the prophet Muhammad stirred violent protest across the globe, the reaction to this incident stems from a deep cultural identity and religious faith that can surprise outsiders. Though there was outrage at a bomb attack in Baghdad's dangerous Dora neighborhood that killed 21 Shiites on Tuesday, no attack has stirred the type of tension created by this one in Samarra.

Samarra is not simply a Sunni city with a Shiite shrine at its heart. It hosts a confusing welter of tribal allegiances and rivalries that have left it violent and unstable since the war began. About half of its 200,000 residents have abandoned the city in the past two years, and U.S. soldiers built a vast earthen berm around it last August in an effort to keep insurgents out.

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The Rise of Jihadi Suicide Culture

Sharm el-Sheikh. London. Casablanca. The men who carried out the terrorist bombings in each of these cities came from dramatically different backgrounds.

In London, the attackers were lower middle-class Britons. In Casablanca in 2003, they were all from one of the city's poor neighborhoods. And in Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday -- although the investigation into the deadliest terror attack in Egyptian history is just getting under way -- local officials say there are indications the attackers have links to an attack here last October carried out by a cell of working-class Egyptians.

While some counterterrorism experts say evidence may eventually link all of these attacks to the core of Al Qaeda's leadership suspected of hiding along the Pakistan-Afghan border, the diverse backgrounds of the presumed attackers underscore a shift: The culture of Islamist suicide bombers is becoming more commonplace, as is the defining of civilians as "enemies."

Even in the wave of Islamist terror attacks that destabilized Egypt for much of the 1990s, suicide bombers weren't used. Now the country has seen two major attacks of this kind in eight months, with the latest death toll now at least 88.

What concerns counterterrorism experts is that tactics that once prompted fierce ideological debates within radical circles -- suicide and attacks on civilians are both classically defined in Islam as sins -- are now more likely to be embraced by young men. A decade or two ago, Muslim males might have been willing to take up a rifle and risk death fighting against the Soviets in the mountains of Afghanistan, but many would have balked at making the ultimate sacrifice or at blowing up civilians in a Moscow train station.

While the attacks on London and Egypt in recent days have dominated the headlines, Iraq appears to be playing a central role -- in shifting views and as ground zero in a new wave in of suicide attacks.

"You can probably average it out to about one a day almost,'' says M.J. Gohel, a terrorism researcher at the Asia Pacific Foundation in London. (In June, the peak month in June 2004, there were 18 suicide bombings. This June, there were 30). "They're using them like confetti for what are frequently minor attacks, and what this shows is they have a virtually endless supply [of bombers] at this point. In the old days, suicide bombing was a rare event."

The tactical logic of the suicide bomber hasn't changed: He's difficult to stop, and equalizes the power differential between the militarily weak and the strong. But it appears, say some analysts, to have developed a momentum of its own. As it has become more common among the circles of supporters of the global jihad, taboos have been broken down creating a greater willingness among young men to take their own lives, which in turn feeds the cycle.

The Shiite group Hizbullah, which pioneered modern suicide bombings against Israel during its occupation of Lebanon, used the tactic fewer than 40 times. Palestinian militants, who adopted the tactic from Hizbullah, used suicide attackers 100 times in the 10 years until the end of 2002. Since, there have been 35 suicide attacks. And in Iraq, where suicide terrorism was virtually unknown before the US invasion, there have been 188 suicide bombings since August 2003, according to the Brookings Institute Iraq Index (although some research puts the tally as high as 400.)

That compares to 315 total suicide attacks carried out worldwide between 1980 and 2003, according to data compiled by University of Chicago professor Robert Pape in his book Dying to Win.

Mr. Pape argues in his book that suicide attacks are far from exclusive to Muslims or religious radicals.

He points out that 76 of the attacks in the period he surveyed were carried by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, a secular separatist movement, while others point to the Japanese kamikazes of World War II.

"It's a tactic of desperation, of people who feel they're weak and have to take a stand against what they see as their enemy, so it's not just an act of fanaticism,'' says Wayne White, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and a retired senior official for the State Department's office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia.

But while he says it would be wrong to identify suicide terrorism with Islam, he says that a radical subculture has emerged within Islam that has created a spreading problem.

"Let's face it, there's an intersection of two factors here, a significant rise in the past two decades of Islamic piety which sometimes extends to radical Islamic piety and feelings of hopelessness, a sense of helplessness in the face of what's seen as Western imperialism or aggression," he says.

While many Muslim preachers are speaking out against these terror tactics, the core beliefs of Al Qaeda and other groups that favor attacks on civilians are broadcast around the world every day. "You get many clerics who say it's haram [forbidden] to do this, but they have their own clerics that will justify whatever that they want to do,'' says Mr. White.

Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism consultant and author of Al Qaeda's Jihad in Europe says that on militant websites, stories of the bravery and heroism of suicide bombers in Iraq, Israel, and elsewhere are traded in ways that can prompt imitators.

"In the US there are young men who look up to sports stars, and in radical Muslim circles the heroes are these guys fighting in Iraq" and carrying out other attacks, he says.

Photographs that Damn

It was a damaging week for American public relations in the Arab world. What started with deadly riots over allegations that U.S. interrogators flushed the Koran ended with leaked photos of Saddam Hussein in his underwear.

To the New York Post, which first published the pictures on Friday along with its sister publication the Sun of Britain, the photographs were a chance to emphasis Hussein's crimes and indulge in public humiliation of the former strongman. The Sun and the Post say a U.S. military source gave them the pictures.

But for the most of the Arab press the pictures are being treated as a small piece in an overall pattern of alleged American violations of prisoners' rights. And as confirmation, to many, of U.S. contempt for Arabs and Islam.

Al-Hayat, one of two major pan-Arab dailies, followed the story on the front page Saturday, with the headline "Pictures of Saddam in His Cell Violate the Geneva Conventions." The paper, like many in the region, didn't show the photos of Hussein.

Al Jazeera, the dominant regional satellite news channel, which is frequently attacked by U.S. politicians for alleged bias, has reported briefly on the pictures, but didn't show them. "The picture in itself isn't newsworthy, and we felt that it was denigrating in general,'' says Jihad Ballout, Al Jazeera's spokesman in Qatar.

Mr. Ballout says the decision is consistent with Al Jazeera's general policies, though it has shown pictures of U.S. servicemen and other hostages in insurgent custody in Iraq.

How one organization sees the importance of the photos, however, seems to follow how they felt about the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Al Jazeera has been opposed to the war, and tends to paint Iraq's insurgency as nationalist resistance to occupation.

The Sun and the Post, both owned by Rupbert Murdoch, supported the war and tend to paint the insurgency there as Baathist terrorists. The Sun quotes the unnamed source of the pictures as saying: "It's important that the people of Iraq see him like that to destroy the myth. Maybe that will kill a bit of the passion in the fanatics who still follow him."

President Bush doubted that the pictures would have much impact on Iraq's insurgency. "I don't think a photo inspires murderers. I think they're inspired by an ideology that's so barbaric and backwards that it's hard for many in the Western world to comprehend how they think."

The minor flap over the release over the pictures, which presidential spokesman Trent Duffy said are a "clear violation of [Department of Defense] directives and possibly Geneva Convention guidelines for the humane treatment of detained individuals,'' has been overshadowed in the Arab media by more serious allegations.

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported the results of a U.S. military investigation into a pattern of torture and abuse of prisoners, which led to the deaths of at least two detainees, at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Pakistani and Middle Eastern newspapers have continued to run stories from former prisoners at the U.S. military's Guantánamo Bay detention camp alleging torture and desecration of the Koran.

A Newsweek story two weeks ago, since retracted, told of U.S. interrogators flushing the Koran down toilets to break the will of prisoners. Retraction or not, it's become an article of faith in the Arab world.

The pictures from Abu Ghraib, the Baghdad prison where U.S. soldiers abused Iraqi are still frequently shown on Arab TV. Most in the region have been disappointed with the Abu Ghraib investigation and sentences so far. Army Specialist Charles Graner, the accused ringleader of the abuse, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in January. Sabrina Harman, the only other soldier yet convicted, received a six-month sentence last week.

"The event that had the biggest impact for me was when I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib in the newspapers,'' says Samir Naguib, manager of a Cairo mobile phone company. "What do I think of when I hear 'America' now? The global bully.''

Naguib, who has vacationed in America and once entertained offers to work there, is among the millions of past admirers of America. A report earlier this month from the Council on Foreign Relations summarizing a series of focus groups in Morocco, Egypt, and Indonesia found that America's efforts to win hearts and minds aren't working.

"The growth of hostility to America in Muslim countries increases recruitment, and support for extremism and terror,'' the authors write. "This hostility is a change for focus group members: Most recall that their earlier attitudes towards the U.S. were quite favorable."

Naguib says the pictures of Hussein aren't nearly as interesting to him as news on Iraqi war casualties, claims of U.S. abuses of detainees, and the Abu Ghraib scandal.

"Saddam ... deserves what he gets, but the pictures show that if a person is behind U.S.-controlled bars then anything can happen to him. It's clear now that America isn't very different from the Arab states in this,'' he says. "The Abu Ghraib trials were only at the level of the soldiers, not raised to the levels of the generals that permitted this to happen."

Poll Party

NAJAF, IRAQ - Shortly after 7a.m., voters began trickling past the security guards, under the red and blue streamers decorating Barada Elementary School. In the women's voting room, a parade of black abayas swelled as the hours went on.

An elderly woman, eager to be the first on her block to vote, clutched a laminated card with the symbol of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite list that almost certainly won the most votes here in Sunday's election to select Iraq's 275-member transitional national assembly.

The woman was turned away when poll workers learned she couldn't read, sent to fetch someone to help her mark the extensive ballot of 111 lists. But that didn't affect the mood of excitement and defiance in this polling station and throughout this southern Iraqi city that suffered under Saddam Hussein.

A second woman teetered up to the registration desk and greeted the poll worker: "Peace be upon you and death to the Baath," she said.

Najaf, the shrine city that serves as the symbolic heart of Shiite Islam, came out in force Sunday to vote in an election that many here hope will put Mr. Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baath Party safely into history.

While Iraq's majority Shiite Arabs also hope for better government and a share of power that reflects their status as Iraq's majority, there seemed to be something cathartic in the act of voting, which combined a rejection of the past with hopes for a safer future.

Unlike Baghdad and other points north, where voting was plagued by violence and the doubts of Sunni Arabs about their position in society, turnout here appears to have been massive, close to 80 percent, according to preliminary estimates. Families poured out into the blockaded and peaceful streets and many proudly displayed their stained fingers – ink was used to prevent voting twice – to passersby.

"This is an enormous day for us. Finally, we're able to vote for people we know, people from Najaf who we can judge by words and deeds,'' says Hasan Salim, a carpenter who says he woke up at 6 a.m. thinking of his two dead brothers, lost to Hussein's regime.

Thousands of Najaf's sons died in the Iran-Iraq war and much of its old quarter was leveled by Hussein after a 1991 uprising. Its citizens were frequently punished for failing to join the regime's Baath Party.

In Najaf and across much of the Shiite south, the determination not to be abused again appears to have coalesced behind the United Iraqi Alliance, the electoral list sponsored by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that includes most of Iraq's Shiite political parties and movements.

Ayatollah Sistani is Iraq's most revered religious figure, and his clout, combined with Shiite demographics, should leave Shiites with the most seats in the National Assembly that will write Iraq's new constitution. Shiites make up about 60 percent of the country's population, but candidates favored by Shiite voters will probably take more than 60 percent of the seats in the assembly, since turnout in many Sunni Arab areas was low.

"I feel the new government will write a constitution that gives us our rights,'' says Mr. Salim. "The old regime kept Shiites from going to their shrines, they followed me around just because I'm a Shiite, and now all of that is going to stop."

To be sure, that constitution will be written after months of difficult negotiations. The question of how much autonomy should be given to ethnic Kurds in the north and how much Islam should shape what has been a secular state could prove vexing.

Many of the southern Shiites are religiously and culturally conservative, something Salim points out while explaining the vote's importance. "Even my wife went out to vote today. I usually keep her at home, but I made an exception because this is so important."

"This is another step toward the success of our revolution,'' says Abdel Ariba, a policeman working at the Barada school, his neighborhood's polling center.

Abdul Al-Rida, wearing the turban of a religious scholar, emerges from voting and recalls how different this was from Hussein's periodic "referendums" on his rule. Such elections had mandatory attendance, and voting "no" on Hussein's presidency was decidedly unsafe. But Mr. Rida took a chance during the last election, in 2002.

"I hid in my house for three days – I didn't go out for anything – so people would think I'd left town,'' he says. "It used to be very dangerous to wear the turban of a religious man; they killed many of us. Thanks to God, I was only tortured a few times. Today when I voted, I really felt free."

About an hour after the polls closed at 5 p.m., workers began sifting through the ballots. At one polling station, they huddled around candles as electricity was down in the city. Workers dropped votes for each list into separate piles. Judging from the size of each pile, the United Iraqi Alliance, the Sistani-backed list, was well ahead of the others.

This city's palpable sense of grievance has deep roots as well as recent history behind it. Eid al-Ghadir, a Shiite feast day banned under Hussein's Sunni Arab regime, was celebrated the day before the vote. The holiday marks the day Shiites believe that Prophet Mohammed selected his son-in-law Ali to be his successor.

Ali was assassinated more than 1,300 years ago, not far from here, in a dispute over who should lead the faithful. His killing hardened the split between Shiite and Sunni. Eid al-Ghadir serves to commemorate what Shiites see as an injustice that also became a metaphor for Hussein's rule.

"It's like we're having two feasts this year,'' says Zuher Shakar, a mechanic with the callous on his forehead of a man who prays frequently. "On Saturday, we voted for Imam Ali. Today we vote for the future."

The Dangerous Life of an Iraqi Policeman

As Iraq moves closer to its Jan. 30 elections, Iraqi police charged with protecting the vote are donning a new low-tech security device: the ski mask to hide their identities from would-be attackers.

The choice of headgear is in response to being targeted as never before. Since October, four Iraqi police and national guardsmen have died for every American soldier killed, based on a Monitor tabulation. As more and more police and guards hit the streets, that ratio appears to be going up. In the first 10 days of January, at least 108 Iraqi guardsmen and police have been killed compared with 23 U.S. casualties.

Monday morning, the second-highest ranking police official in Baghdad was murdered on his way to work, along with his policeman son. Elsewhere in Baghdad, a suicide bomber hit the police station in the Zafarniyah district in a stolen police car, killing four more cops.

With less than three weeks until the election, the ability of the Iraqi forces to stand firm in the face of the onslaught remains an open question.

Col. Adnan Abdulrahman, spokesman for the interior ministry, says that while concerns about training and equipment are serious, he isn't too worried about the morale of police under his command. "We have people lining up to enlist – for every one that quits we have two or more that want to take his place,'' he says. Iraqi security forces make an average of $150 a month, a comfortable sum in a city where day laborers can make $2 a day and unemployment hovers around 40 percent."I wouldn't say the police are afraid. It's just that it's a difficult and dangerous job."

And it is getting more difficult. Col. Abdulrahman says that about 100,000 policemen will be stationed at polling places on election day, and they're expected to be backed up by tens of thousands of Iraqi guards. The U.S. and coalition presence will also be huge, with U.S. troop numbers being increased to about 150,000 to secure the elections.

But current plans drawn up by the Iraqi election commission indicate that U.S. troops will keep their distance from polling places, try to be as low-profile as possible, and defer to the Iraqi interim government on security for election day.

"It's a question of how you find the balance between providing decent security but not giving the sense that somehow we're controlling [the election],'' says a senior U.S. diplomat at the Embassy in Baghdad. "If they say they don't want us somewhere, we won't be there."

Ali, a national guardsman who declines to give his name or unit, doesn't want to be manning a checkpoint on a Baghdad freeway. It's relatively balmy for Baghdad in winter, and most residents go about coatless. But Ali and three other of the Iraqi national guardsmen at the checkpoint are wearing the black ski masks that have become de rigueur for Iraqi forces.

"It's not that we feel too afraid,'' says Ali, a father of two who was unemployed until he enlisted last year. "I just have to be careful that I don't get myself or my family killed." Ali says he's proud to play his part in securing Iraq, something he says that will lead to an eventual U.S. departure.

But he also says he took the job after months of fruitless search elsewhere, and that his wife regularly begs him to quit, particularly after a car bomb hit a National Guard post in Amil district on Jan. 3, killing 18 national guards, two of them his friends. "There have been a lot of martyrs from my unit already, and there are probably going to be more," he says. "But my first responsibility is money for my family."

Ali says the biggest changes that would make his work safer would be better equipment – he gestures in disgust at his aging AK-47 – and the right to take his weapon at night. While police are allowed to carry weapons off duty, guardsmen aren't, in part because officials have worried that some of them may be insurgents.

Not allowing guards to carry weapons played a part in a deadly attack last October, in which 50 guardsmen were executed after the bus taking them home from a U.S. training camp in eastern Iraq was stopped at an insurgent roadblock.

While suicide bombings and roadside bombs are what have killed most of the guardsmen and police, Iraq's insurgents have also increasingly relied on targeted assassinations of high officials. Baghdad's deputy police chief Amer Ali Nayef and his son, Lt. Khalid Amer, were killed near their home in the Dora neighborhood at about 8 o'clock Monday morning.

Two cars pulled alongside their vehicle and riddled it with machine-gun fire before speeding away, police say. This month, the police chief in the southern town of Jebala, the deputy police chief in the central Iraqi town of Samarra, a police colonel in the central town of Baquba, and Baghdad's governor have all been killed in similar incidents.

Looming Sectarian Split

Iman Abit al-Wahid is so afraid that she pulled her oldest daughter out of medical school and sent her son to a rural village for safety. Hassan Kazal Omran says many stores stopped distributing voter registration cards after death threats were slipped under their doors. Ahmed al-Mashdany says the whole thing is fixed and will taint everyone associated with it.

In the Sunni Arab communities of Iraq there seem to be as many reasons – fear, anger, confusion – to plan to stay away from the polls as there are people. The message is clear. While many Sunnis say they'd like to vote in the election scheduled for Jan. 30, most say they probably won't.

With growing tension between Iraq's majority Shiites and the Sunni Arab minority who have always dominated the country's government, low Sunni participation come election day is likely to further divide, rather than unite, Iraq's two most important constituencies. Further division, in the worst case, could nudge Iraq closer to civil war.

The leading Sunni political parties are now positioning themselves to reject the vote and its consequence – the writing of a new constitution – as unfair. If there is high turnout among the country's Shiites, as expected, that assembly will be packed with Shiite politicians who suffered mightily under Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime and could write a constitution that emphasizes majority rights at the expense of minorities.

Many worry this could lead to sectarian conflict. A largely Shiite government, vested with the sovereignty that an election lends, will be fighting a largely Sunni insurgency that has killed thousands of Iraqis in recent months.

"The Americans have set this up in such a way that a lot is at stake after this election,'' says Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. "If the Sunnis are grossly underrepresented in this constitutional constituent assembly, it will be set up for a guerrilla war that lasts for decades."

This week, violence has continued to sweep Iraq. On Tuesday, Baghdad Governor Ali al-Haidari was murdered with six of his bodyguards in Baghdad, and a suicide bombing at an Iraqi special forces post killed 10. Mr. Haidari was the highest ranking government official killed since May. On Monday, three suicide bombings killed 16 Iraqis.

The violence, and the likelihood that many Sunni Arabs won't vote, prompted Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan to tell reporters in Cairo that an election delay might be possible if the government grows convinced it will lead to more Sunni participation. Iraq's independent electoral commission, however, said a delay is not being considered.

A delay would also carry risks, since it could prompt anger and violence among Shiites, who expect the election to be their path to power.

Average Iraqis of all stripes say they just want peace. But for many Sunnis – racked by doubts about the fairness of the process and intimidated by extremists who have threatened death to voters – voting itself seems too high a price to pay.

"I was mugged in front of my house just two weeks ago. Kidnapping has gotten worse and worse and I'm afraid to even open my front door now,'' says Mrs. Wahid, a math teacher and mother of three. "How am I going to feel safe going to vote?"

Wahid says she's generally apolitical and she wants honest leaders to come to power who can restore order. But because of the recent violence she can't imagine feeling safe enough to go to the polls in less than a month's time.

In addition to fear, confusion reigns for many. The biggest Shiite electoral list, the United Iraqi Alliance organized by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's top Shiite cleric, is backed by large numbers of Shiites simply because they trust Sistani. There is no Sunni corollary.

The best known Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said last week that it was pulling out of the election. While there are numerous smaller Sunni groups participating, average Iraqis know little about the candidates. And while Sistani has urged Iraqis to vote as a religious duty, Sunni extremists have implied that voting is sinful.

In Wahid's Sunni neighborhood, you'd never guess that Iraq is gearing up for its first free national elections. There are no posters and so far, there has been no campaigning. While she says she watches television news, she hasn't been able to learn anything about the candidates. "I think they're all too afraid to go on TV."

There are also conspiracy theories circulating. Omar Saadi, a laborer, says he's not voting both out of fear and because he suspects the election results are being fixed by the U.S. and Iran, the Shiite theocracy next door that has close ties to many of Iraq's leading Shiite politicians.

He's not the only one. King Abdullah, the Sunni monarch of Iraq's neighbor Jordan, has alleged that 1 million Iranians had entered Iraq to vote in the country's election.

While Iraqi officials say that's very unlikely, many Sunnis are willing to believe this and other claims of vote rigging. "I'm not going anywhere near this election – it's clearly dishonest,'' says Ahmad al-Mashdany, a retired government employee. "The American forces have prepared the electoral lists so that their candidates will win."

Mr. Cole says ambiguity over the actual numbers of Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq is one reason so many Sunni groups, particularly the more extreme ones, are reluctant to participate in the election. Most experts think Iraq is about 60 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni, and 15 percent Kurdish.

"A lot of these groups who have been claiming to speak for the Sunni Arabs wouldn't get that high a vote, so if they ran it would reveal how small their support actually is,'' he says. "By not participating they can position themselves to speak for the Sunni community afterwards."

Cole says there is still hope. The Shiite "leadership doesn't want a partition of Iraq, they very much want the country to stay together ... so they'll find some way to reach out to the Sunni Arabs.''

Meanwhile, in Shiite areas preparations for the election are building. Hassan Kazal Omran owns a store in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad's Karrada district that distributes government-subsidized food. The subsidized food lists, of which all Iraqi's belong, are being used for voter registration, and thousands of these stores across Iraq have been asked to hand out the documents that will be used to verify voters on election day.

Mr. Omran says all but three of the 204 families registered at his store have taken their registration cards, but on a recent visit to the government food distribution center, that wasn't the same story he heard from his Sunni counterparts.

"In some neighborhoods, the store owners have been threatened with death if they carry out this duty, so they refused,'' he says. "I hope this changes. If we give in to threats and there is no election now, we'll just be stuck, stuck in this miserable situation."

Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds

The killing of a wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi by a U.S. marine, videotaped by an embedded reporter from NBC on Saturday and broadcast around the world, is stirring anger in the Middle East and elsewhere.

That anger, reminiscent of the outcry that followed the release of torture photos from Abu Ghraib prison, is the latest upsurge in a propaganda war that the U.S. has been embroiled in from the get-go in Iraq. US officials say an investigation has begun.

The act itself, perhaps a result of the fog of war, perhaps an act of revenge, represents a key challenge for the Marines. Keenly aware that U.S. excesses in the past have turned global opinion against the war in Iraq, and thereby threatened U.S. strategic objectives, commanders repeatedly have warned their subordinates not to shoot unarmed or seriously injured men.

The notion that armies are only as good as their least disciplined soldier in the media glare of modern warfare has become almost a matter of doctrine, given the need for enlisted men to think quickly in stressful situations.

"They call it the 'strategic corporal,'" says Lieut. Michael Aubry, a vehicle commander from Arlington Heights, Ill., with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance company in central Fallujah. "[Lower ranks] are seeing stuff and reacting to it without guidance" from higher authority.

In a 1999 article, Gen. Charles Krulak, then the Marine Commandant, coined the term. In the 21st century, he wrote, young marines would need "to confidently make well-reasoned and independent decisions under extreme stress – decisions that will likely be subject to the harsh scrutiny of both the media and the court of public opinion. In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy."

Yet in the heat of the moment Saturday, a young marine did severe damage to the image of a precise and clean assault that the U.S. had hoped to project from Fallujah. The footage has already become more fodder on jihadi websites peddling the conspiracy theory that the U.S. is on a crusade against global Islam. It also caused cringing in the capitals of U.S. friends and allies. Tuesday, UN Human Rights chief Louise Arbour called for an investigation of alleged U.S. abuses in Fallujah.

Charles Smith, a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Arizona, says the military triumph in Fallujah could be undermined by global anger at how the victory was achieved. In the coming weeks, he says, observers are likely to see "the Bush administration trumpeting 'victory' and much of the rest of the world, including Europe, considering some of our practices as war crimes."

Fallujah has long been a center of Iraq's information war – whether it was video of the four mutilated U.S. security contractors there last April that insurgents hoped would demoralize the U.S., or the pictures of the women and children severely wounded in the retaliatory American assault that followed.

"This incident hasn't elicited the type of shock that Abu Ghraib did – that set a bar in a way, and lowered expectations,'' says Toby Jones, who tracks Islamist trends for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "But this will have a propaganda value that lives on."

On jihadi Web sites that Mr. Jones follows, the killing has been the top issue. A common theme at such sites has been that the public execution was a matter of policy. "The U.S. did this to state clearly that the occupier will kill you like this if you resist," one typical post begins. The post was read 8,000 times, "pretty high traffic for these types of sites,'' says Jones.

The incident, captured by NBC reporter Kevin Sites, who is embedded with the Marines 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, is chilling. In a mosque that had seen heavy fighting the day before, marines enter to find Iraqi dead and wounded slumped against a wall. One of the marines begins cursing and shouting about a wounded man, insisting he's "faking he's dead." A marine fires at the man's upper body, and another marine says, "He's dead now."

What prompted the killing is not yet known. But Mr. Sites told newswires that another marine from the same unit had been killed the previous day by the booby-trapped body of a dead insurgent. The marine who killed the Iraqi had also been wounded in the face the previous day. The wounded Iraqi, in turn, had been disarmed and tended to by a separate marine unit earlier, who had left him behind to be picked up later.

Other marines said they understood why it might have happened under the stress of combat.

"I can see why he would do it. He was probably running around being shot at for days on end in Fallujah. There should be an investigation, but they should look into the circumstances," said Lance Cpl. Christopher Hanson, quoted by Reuters.

Commanders have worried about these kinds of incidents since long before the assault. In Fallujah, U.S. forces first fell into disrepute, just days after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, when they fired on a crowd protesting their presence in a local school. Over a dozen Fallujans were gunned down during two days of unrest.

Then last April, when Marines launched an offensive in Fallujah after the killing of four American security contractors, the rising death toll on both sides and steady reports of heavyhanded, sometimes brutal American behavior caused a global outcry.

Aware of that history, commanders planning to seize Fallujah this time spent days reviewing procedures with their troops. Each day leading up to the start of the offensive, they went over strict rules of engagement printed on yellow cards and handed to every soldier and marine before the fight. The rules stressed that only armed men were to be shot.

Final briefings made clear that top brass understood the dangers of an event like the killing in the mosque and how it could undermine the entire military effort in Iraq, by poisoning popular opinion.

Even during the battle, radio traffic between mobile units included questions about targets engaged – "were they armed?" – and reminders from officers sometimes to slow to avoid mistakes.

High Stakes of Taking Fallujah

As U.S. Marines mass outside the tough Sunni Triangle town of Fallujah, analysts believe the imminent high-profile attack in Iraq carries high political risks.

The U.S. says a principal motivation behind retaking Fallujah, considered the center of the insurgency, is to make Iraq safe enough for elections, scheduled for the end of January.

Rooting out the foreign insurgents the U.S. believes are using the city as a base to wreak havoc throughout the country is crucial to stabilizing Iraq, U.S. officials say. This, coupled with sending a stern message to militants that they will be dealt with unmercifully, could be a turning point on the road to winning the peace in Iraq.

But these broad goals may prove difficult to achieve, say many observers skeptical that the attack on Fallujah can achieve the type of results that U.S. and Iraqi officials are hoping for.

Analysts say that rebels have already fanned out well beyond Fallujah to towns like Ramadi and Samarra, fueling a new wave of violence in areas the U.S. thought it had previously pacified.

To this way of thinking there is no decisive battle to be won in Fallujah, and if the assault devastates that city - in the way the Vietnamese city of Hue was by Marines in 1968 - it could end up damaging the long-term interests of the U.S. and Prime Minister Allawi. Elections could be more threatened by violence, not less so, and rebels will simply establish themselves in more broadly dispersed, harder to strike, locales.

"The Sunnis see themselves [as] the natural rulers of Iraq and they're not going to give it up without a fight,'' says Patrick Lang, a retired U.S. army colonel and former head of Middle East intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency. He says he worries the U.S., by painting the coming battle as "a cataclysmic clash between good and evil" will end up leveling the town and not leave the room for political compromise that long-term peace requires.

"This is a civil war and it's essentially a political process that's going on there,'' says Mr. Lang.

"Allawi understands that he needs to bring these people ... back into a secular Iraqi nationalism. He'd like to see sufficient force used to get cooperation. But we don't want to go too far. We don't want to create a legend in the Middle East that we're a new Hulagu Khan,'' he says, referring to the 13th-century Mongol ruler whose sacking of Baghdad and murder of hundreds of thousands there is still talked about by Arabs.

Even in regard to Iraq's short-term stability, there are doubts over what the offensive can achieve.

Sunday, the Iraqi government braced for more violence by declaring a 60-day state of emergency for all of the country except the relatively peaceful Kurdish areas in the north. The emergency will see curfews imposed and other liberties curtailed.

"We have nothing [against] the people of Fallujah,'' said Prime Minister Allawi. "They have been taken hostage by a bunch of terrorists and bandits and insurgents who were part of the old regime.... I hope the terrorists get it because we are not going to be easy on them. We are going to bring them to justice and we are going to ensure the safety of the people in Iraq."

Widening Insurgency

With many fighters having fled to other cities, Fallujah is not as rich a prize as it once was, say analysts.

While Fallujah was seen months ago as an insurgent hotbed from which many of Iraq's devastating suicide bombings were planned, there is now evidence of more decentralized planning and execution. And areas once won by U.S. and Iraqi forces have shown signs of slipping back out of control.

That was brought home Saturday in Samarra, were more than 30 people were killed in four separate car-bombings and light arms attacks against Iraqi soldiers and police. U.S. soldiers and Iraqi forces retook the city in early October, in an effort some saw as a dress rehearsal for Fallujah, but many local insurgents simply went underground.

Deadly Weekend

Also over the weekend, 20 U.S. soldiers were wounded by a car bomb in the nearby city of Ramadi, 12 Iraqi guardsmen were abducted and executed near the Shiite city of Najaf, a bombing in Baghdad killed a U.S. soldier, and insurgents attacked police in the center of the capital. The Samarra and Ramadi attacks were claimed in an Internet statement by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose network U.S. officials say is based in Fallujah. The authenticity of that claim could not be verified.

To be sure, many U.S. and Iraqi officials see Fallujah as a crucial piece in Iraq's security puzzle. "I can't claim that entering Fallujah will end the terrorist attacks in Iraq,'' Qassem Dawoud, Prime Minister Allawi's national security adviser, said on Al-Arabiya. "But I can say that we will deal with a very big pocket of terrorism [and] we will uproot it. This pocket forms the backbone and the center for terrorists."

In his comments Sunday, Allawi said the emergency law and retaking Fallujah should keep Iraq's elections on track. But not all are convinced. In a letter to President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Allawi on Friday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan indicated he was worried the Fallujah offensive could drive Iraq's Sunni's further away from the political process.

While Iraq's Kurds and majority Shiites were treated as second-class citizens under Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq's Sunnis controlled the government, as they have done for most of Iraq's history. That has left many Iraqi Sunnis thinking they have more to lose than to gain from political change.

"Most of what we're fighting now are Sunni arabs who fear being dispossessed of their power,'' says Lang. "The reason they're doing things like imposing sharia law in places like Fallujah is because, with civil society having broken down, this is the symbol of their common identity."

"They're quite willing to fight and die for it," he says.