BAGHDAD — The colonel pulls his Mercedes into the parking lot of the drab, 11-story concrete building, scanning the scene for suspicious cars.
Before reaching for the door handle, he studies the people loitering nearby in hopes he will be able to recognize anyone still there later in the day. He grips his pistol, the trigger cocked, wary of an ambush.
He has arrived at his office.
This is Iraq's Ministry of Interior -- the balkanized command center for the nation's police and mirror of the deadly factions that have caused the government here to grind nearly to a halt.
The very language that Americans use to describe government -- ministries, departments, agencies -- belies the reality here of militias that kill under cover of police uniform and remain above the law. Until recently, one or two Interior Ministry police officers were assassinated each week while arriving or leaving the building, probably by fellow officers, senior police officials say.
That killing has been reduced, but Western diplomats still describe the Interior Ministry building as a "federation of oligarchs." Those who work in the building, like the colonel, liken departments to hostile countries. Survival depends on keeping abreast of shifting factional alliances and turf.
On the second floor is Gen. Mahdi Gharrawi, a former national police commander. Last year, U.S. and Iraqi troops found 1,400 prisoners, mostly Sunnis, at a base he controlled in east Baghdad. Many showed signs of torture. The interior minister blocked an arrest warrant against the general this year, senior Iraqi officials confirmed.
The third- and fifth-floor administrative departments are the domain of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, a Shiite group.
The sixth, home to border enforcement and the major crimes unit, belongs to the Badr Organization militia. Its leader, Deputy Minister Ahmed Khafaji, is lauded by some Western officials as an efficient administrator and suspected by others of running secret prisons.
The seventh floor is intelligence, where the Badr Organization and armed Kurdish groups struggle for control.
The ninth floor is shared by the department's inspector general and general counsel, religious Shiites. Their offices have been at the center of efforts to purge the department's remaining Sunni employees. The counsel's predecessor, a Sunni, was killed a year ago.
"They have some bad things on the ninth," says the colonel, a Sunni who, like other ministry officials, spoke on condition of anonymity to guard against retaliation.
The ministry's computer department is on the 10th floor. Two employees were arrested there in February on suspicion of smuggling in explosives, according to police and U.S. military officials. Some Iraqi and U.S. officials say the workers intended to store bombs there. Others say they were plotting to attack the U.S. advisors stationed directly above them on the top floor.
Months after the arrests, it's unclear whether the detainees are Sunni insurgents or followers of Muqtada Sadr, the anti-U.S. Shiite cleric whose portrait stares down from some office walls in a sign of his spreading influence in the ministry.
Partitions divide the building's hallways, and gunmen guard the offices of deputy ministers. Senior police officials march up and down stairs rather than risk an elevator. They walk the halls flanked by bodyguards, wary of armed colleagues.
"What is in their hearts? You do not know who they belong to," a senior officer said.
The factionalization of the ministry began quickly after Saddam Hussein's fall. As with most Iraqi government departments, deputy ministers were appointed to represent each of the country's main political parties. Deputies then distributed jobs among party stalwarts.
The initial winners were the Kurdish Democratic Party and the two Shiite parties, Dawa and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which sponsors the Badr Organization. The Kurdish party is one of two factions that control Iraq's northern provinces.
Sadr's Al Mahdi militia started late in the patronage game but has made significant inroads, particularly among the guard force that surrounds the ministry compound.
Parties representing the Sunni minority, which controlled Iraq in Hussein's day, have been almost entirely purged from the ministry in the last two years. Three of the ministry's longest-serving Sunni generals have been killed in the last year.
Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, a Shiite leader who took office last summer, has attempted to repair the ministry's reputation. He has removed the leaders of eight of nine national police brigades and 17 of 27 police battalions, which have been accused of killings and mass kidnappings. But change has come slowly.