BAGHDAD — The uniformed gunmen knocked politely on Hamid Shammari's door.
They took away his 20-year-old son, promising to let him go the next day. He hasn't been seen or heard from since that dreadful Sunday that changed the Jihad neighborhood of western Baghdad, and perhaps the rest of Iraq.
For several hours on the morning of July 9, Jihad became a place of unspeakable brutality, not so much for the wanton bloodshed that has become a daily part of Iraqi life, but for the systematic nature of the killings. At least 36 and possibly as many as 55 Sunni Arab men were executed in what appears to have been a revenge operation condoned or even overseen by law enforcement officials.
The shooting began early, in ferocious barrages that shook the neighborhood. Shiite youths acting in apparent collaboration with police officials cordoned off the area with barbed wire. Gunmen stood guard at checkpoints and prevented many from leaving. And later, men in police uniforms went door-to-door holding lists of names.
Witnesses say the Jihad massacre, which many Iraqis consider a disquieting watershed in the country's descent into an undeclared civil war between Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions, was carried out with clocklike precision as residents cowered in their homes making panicked cellphone calls to U.S. security forces, the Iraqi equivalent of 911 and, in one case, a commander in a Shiite militia.
Iraq's Interior Ministry vehemently denies that police took part in the slayings. One ranking official, speaking on condition he not be named, said police commandos rushed to Jihad that day and restored order as "violence broke out among civilians." The U.S. military also defended its role, saying it responded as soon as Iraqi police said it was needed.
Authorities did not act until 2 1/2 to four hours after the operation started, residents contend. The few hours were all the assailants needed. With shocking speed, lives built up over decades came crashing down, and a neighborhood was crushed within the grinding gears of Iraq's sectarian war.
Jihad was a desolate wasteland along the west Baghdad road to the international airport until a few decades ago, when the government began selling the land cheaply. With a 1-year-old daughter and a son on the way, Shammari cobbled together his savings 20 years ago and plunked it down on a plot of land in a neighborhood named "Holy War."
A new sewage system was put in place, attracting doctors and other well-to-do folks to the area. The neighborhood's schools were spacious, with large, well-appointed classrooms that drew educated Iraqi families keen on bright futures for their children. The neighbors were "all part of one family," said Shammari, a 53-year-old Sunni Arab schoolteacher and engineer.
"All afternoon, we spent time in the streets, playing and having fun with our friends," said Lina Nader, a 25-year-old secretary who moved to the neighborhood when she was a child. "We were roaming through the area in groups on bicycles."
But tensions always existed between the Sunnis in Jihad and the poorer, mostly Shiite residents in the adjacent Furat neighborhood, as well as the wealthier intelligence officers for Saddam Hussein who were moving in. As sanctions wore the country down in the 1990s, the Jihad enclave became mixed, with Shiites moving into the Sunni areas and vice versa.
Phone lines were destroyed in the U.S. bombing campaign three years ago, and were never fully restored, further cutting the district off from the rest of the capital. As the Sunni rebellion lunged into Baghdad from western cities, Jihad was considered a potential haven for insurgents and found itself in the line of fire as a frequent target of U.S. military operations.
Yet the real troubles between Sunnis and Shiites in Jihad began only four months ago, said Yacoub Youssef, the city councilman whose district includes Jihad.
A Shiite would get killed. A Sunni would get killed. A car would blow up in front of a Shiite mosque. A pair of Sunnis would get abducted and be found later, with bullet holes to the skull and bearing signs of torture.
The situation began deteriorating rapidly about a month ago, residents say. Shammari recalled how a Shiite cigarette vendor was shot to death, followed quickly by the slayings of a Sunni owner of a generator shop and a Shiite barber, who was gunned down along with several customers in his salon. A Sunni butcher was killed. His tribesmen retaliated by killing a number of suspected Shiite militiamen.
"Still, it was semi-calm," Shammari recalled. "You could move around the streets. It was possible to stay out until 8:30 p.m."
But the tit-for-tat killings continued to escalate. A car bomb struck a checkpoint of the Shiite-dominated police commando force July 2, killing five. On July 7, a car bomb exploded near the Fakhri Shanshal Mosque during Friday prayers at that Sunni house of worship. Five people were killed, including two children, police and the U.S. military said.