I keep seeing his face. He appears to be in his mid-20s, bespectacled, slightly bearded, and somehow his smile conveys a sense of prosperity...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — I keep seeing his face. He appears to be in his mid-20s, bespectacled, slightly bearded, and somehow his smile conveys a sense of prosperity to come. Perhaps he is set to marry, enroll in graduate school or launch a business — all of these flights of ambition seem possible.

In the next few images he is encased in plastic: His face is frozen in a ghoulish grimace. Blackened lesions blemish his neck.

“Drill holes,” says Col. Khaled Rasheed, an Iraqi commander who is showing me the set of photographs.

He preserves the snapshots in a drawer, the image of the young man brimming with expectations always on top. There is no name, no identification, just a series of photos documenting the transformation of some mother’s son into a dead body on a bloody table.

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“Please, please, I must show these photographs to President Bush,” Rasheed pleads in desperation, as we sit in a bombed-out palace along the Tigris, once the elegant domain of Saddam Hussein’s wife, now the command center for an Iraqi army battalion. “President Bush must know what is happening in Baghdad!”

I covered Iraq for two years, beginning a few months after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. For the past year, I have been gone. I wondered how the country had changed.

I found that this ancient byway of Islamic learning and foreign invaders has gone over to the dark side. A year ago, car bombs, ambushes, daily gun battles and a chronic lack of electricity and gasoline were sapping the city. But not this: the wanton execution of individuals because of sect — a phenomenon so commonplace it has earned a military shorthand: EJK, for extrajudicial killing.

Every day the corpses pile up in the capital like discarded furniture — at curbside, in lots, in waterways and sewer lines; every day the executioners return. A city in which it was long taboo to ask: “Are you Sunni or Shiite?” has abruptly become defined by these very characteristics.

Once-harmonious neighborhoods with mixed populations have become communal killing grounds. Residents of one sect or the other must clear out or face the whim of fanatics with power drills.

People are here one day, gone the next. Those who do go out often venture no farther than familiar streets. In the sinister evenings, when death squads roam, people block off their lanes with barbed wire, logs, bricks to ward off the killers.

Many residents remain in their homes — paralyzed, going slowly crazy. “My children are imprisoned at home,” says a cook, Daniel, a Christian whom I knew from better times, now planning to join the exodus from Iraq. “They are nervous and sad all the time. Baghdad is a big prison, and their home is a small one. I forced my son to leave school. It’s more important that he be alive than educated.”

But homes offer only an illusion of safety. Recently, insurgents rented apartments in mostly Shiite east Baghdad, filled the flats with explosives and blew them up after Friday prayers. Dozens perished.

Even gathering the bodies of loved ones is an exercise fraught with hazards. A Shiite Muslim religious party controls the main morgue near downtown; its militiamen guard the entrance, keen to snatch relatives of the dead, many of them Sunni Muslim Arabs. Unclaimed Sunni corpses pile up.

U.S. troops caught in middle

U.S. forces find themselves in a strangely ambiguous role. Troops still battle mostly Sunni insurgents, especially in western Anbar province. In Baghdad’s Sunni districts, however, where residents once danced alongside burning Humvees, American troops are now tolerated as a bulwark against Shiite militias. But even that acceptance has its limits.

“Some boys came up here and shook our hands the other day,” a sergeant recalls to me at a frontline base called Apache in the Adamiya district, the last major Sunni bastion on the east side of the Tigris. “But later I saw that their fathers slapped the boys,” the sergeant continues. “I guess they told the kids never to greet us again.”

On a recent patrol in Adamiya, one of the capital’s oldest sections, U.S. soldiers went door to door speaking with merchants and residents, trying to earn their confidence. Everyone seemed cordial as people spoke of their terror of Shiite militiamen. Then a shot rang out and a soldier fell 10 yards from where I stood with the platoon captain; a sniper, probably Sunni, had taken aim at this 21-year-old private from Florida ostensibly there to protect Sunnis against Shiite depredations. The GI survived.

Coursing through the deserted cityscape in an Army Humvee after curfew empties the streets is an experience laced with foreboding. U.S. vehicles, among the few on the road, offer an inviting target for an unseen enemy. Piles of long-uncollected trash may conceal laser-guided explosives.

“Everyone’s thinking the same thing,” a tense sergeant tells me. “IEDs,” he adds, using the shorthand for roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices.

One evening, I accompanied a three-Humvee convoy of MPs through largely Shiite east Baghdad. The objective was to patrol with Iraqi police, but the Iraqi lawmen are hesitant to be seen with Americans, whom they regard as IED magnets. The joint patrol never worked out. Still, good fortune was with us: no attacks.

The next night, an armor-piercing bomb hit the same squad, Gator 1-2. A sergeant with whom I had ridden the previous evening lost a leg; the gunner and driver suffered severe shrapnel wounds. “Timing is everything, especially in Iraq,” the captain and unit commander wrote in an e-mail informing me of the incident.

The U.S. mission here is now defined largely as training Iraqi police and soldiers. But Sunnis don’t trust the mostly Shiite security forces, often with good reason. The question lingers: Are U.S. troops equipping Iraq’s sectarian avengers?

How bad can it get?

At this point, anything seems possible here, a descent of any depth into the abyss. Militiamen and residents are already sealing off neighborhoods by sect. Some have suggested district-to-district ID cards. Word broke recently of a plan to build barriers around this metropolis of 6 million and block the city’s entrances with checkpoints. The “terror trench,” as some immediately dubbed it, seemed to have a fundamental flaw: The killers already are in Baghdad.

An Iraqi colleague ventured recently to the funeral of two Sunni brothers snatched from their homes near southern Baghdad’s Dora district and later found slaughtered. They had disregarded threats to get out. Absent from the ceremony at a relative’s home were the traditional mourning tent, the loudspeakers blaring Quranic verses, the elaborate banners honoring the departed.

The funeral was behind walls, a hushed affair. Few showed up. The family apologized for the muted ritual. You shouldn’t have bothered, the relatives told the few guests, it is too dangerous. Visitors sipped sweetened tea, fingered beads, smoked a cigarette or two and moved on.

Times staff writers Salar Jaff and Zainab Hussein in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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