BAGHDAD — Consider a recent day -- an average 24 hours in Iraq.
Here in the capital, the bodies of eight young men were found chained together, stripped of identification papers, shot and dumped in a parking lot, the first of 20 corpses found in the city that day.
In northern Iraq, a man detonated a bomb vest amid a group of women, children and men lining up for cooking oil, killing himself and 21 others. In the south, police found the bullet-torn body of a senior anti-terrorism official. And in Al Anbar province, in the west, a car smashed into a line of police recruits and exploded, killing 13 by fire and shrapnel.
In all, at least 57 people died and 17 were injured in the violence that day, Sept. 18.
They were all killed in the same country, but not in the same war. The fighting in Iraq is not a single conflict, but an overlapping set of conflicts, fought on multiple battlegrounds, with different combatants. Increasingly, American troops are caught between the competing forces.
In western Iraq's deserts, Sunni Arab insurgent groups, some homegrown and others dominated by foreign fighters, attack Iraqi government forces and the U.S. troops who back them up. In Baghdad and surrounding provinces, Sunni and Shiite fighters attack each other and their rivals' civilians in a burgeoning civil war that U.S. troops have tried to quell.
In southern Iraq, the Shiites dominate. But they are divided, with rival militias fighting over oil and commerce. And in the north of the country, Arabs and Kurds battle for control.
Often during the last three years, the U.S. military has shifted troops to try to tamp down one of these conflicts, only to see another escalate. Now, many American officials worry that with the proliferation of armed actors in Iraq's multiple conflicts, the original U.S. counterinsurgency mission has become something else -- an operation aimed at quelling civil war, which is a much more ambiguous and politically fraught objective.
American troops find themselves in the crossfire, caught among foreign militants, Sunni Muslim nationalist rebels, Shiite Muslim militiamen and other armed groups -- all fighting each other.
"It's a very complex situation," said Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Turner, commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. "Sometimes it's difficult to figure out where the violence is coming from."
West Desert Insurgency
Al Anbar province houses the conflict most familiar to Americans and most costly to U.S. troops -- Marines and Iraqi insurgents, battling in the country's vast western desert.
The insurgents, almost all Sunni Arabs, are a mix of groups, some made up primarily of Iraqis, others heavily composed of foreign fighters drawn to the battle against the U.S. occupation. In addition to American troops, they target Iraqi forces and Sunnis who are suspected of cooperating with the government.
Barely a week passes without the U.S. military sending out several terse death notices from Al Anbar.
Attacks against U.S. forces have climbed 27% in Al Anbar since last year, according to the U.S. Marine Corps. American attempts to reduce the toll by turning over security duties there to Iraqi forces have met with little success. Marines say there are 5,000 Iraqi police officers and 13,000 Iraqi soldiers in the province, but that the Iraqi forces remain fragile and unable to sustain themselves. Half the Iraqi soldiers are on leave at any given time, and many don't return to duty. In May, desertion rates in some Iraqi units reached 40%.
In August, threats from insurgents led half of Fallouja's police force to stay home for days, a U.S. general said. And Fallouja at least has a police force. Other strategic cities, including Haditha, Hit and Ramadi, remain virtually lawless.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the best known of the insurgent groups, continues to make inroads in the province, consolidating and expanding its reach. Al Qaeda in Iraq was led by Abu Musab Zarqawi until U.S. forces killed him in June. American officials had hoped Zarqawi's death would severely disrupt the group, but that does not appear to have happened.
"Al Qaeda has murdered, intimidated, co-opted or paid off all the local national insurgent groups," said Marine Lt. Col. Bryan Salas, a military spokesman in Fallouja. "They run an organized criminal enterprise that has its tentacles in everything from black-market gasoline sales to extortion of police and government paychecks. Al Qaeda provides the leadership and organization for this loose association of organized criminals."
In addition to the deaths of U.S. troops, the conflict has taken a toll on Al Anbar's residents, many of whom have fled. Those who stay are at constant risk.
Among the police recruits killed in Ramadi recently was Faiz Mohamad Ali. In an interview, his brother described Ali as an art institute graduate, painter and optimist.