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It was after dark when the men in uniform entered the first home. Inside, they found three men and shot them using guns with silencers. Then they stole the victims’ van and drove to the next house and killed again. Within an hour, the gunmen had methodically made their way through four homes and shot dead 25 people.

Their work done, they left on foot, disappearing Friday evening into the palm trees and orange groves of the Hawr Rajab district south of Baghdad.

Many of the victims had belonged to the U.S.-backed Awakening movement, Sunni paramilitary groups that took a stand against the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and played a key role in the 2007 American military “surge” against the insurgency. But three women and two girls were also among the dead, according to accounts from residents and security officials.

Saturday, people in the isolated villages south of the capital locked themselves in their homes after an attack that echoed the darkest days of civil war, and raised concerns that the country’s deadlock over forming a government could provoke a renewal in sectarian bloodshed.

Last month’s elections polarized the country, with Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki refusing to accept that an alliance led by his rival Iyad Allawi, favored by Sunnis, had won more parliamentary seats than his bloc. Some Iraqi security officers, U.S. military personnel and Western officials are expressing concern that Al Qaeda in Iraq could reestablish itself on Baghdad’s rural perimeter and cause havoc before the next government is formed.

The attack Friday appeared designed to intimidate the Sunni population. Residents of Hawr Rajab said the attackers arrived in the afternoon in American-style military uniforms. They seized an abandoned home, and one of the men, pretending to be a interpreter, told villagers in a mix of English and Arabic that the “American soldiers” were on a mission.

Some witnesses said the men’s guns had laser pointers, adding a note of eerie efficiency to the nighttime raids.

The carnage reminded some of the arbitrary killings during the rule of Al Qaeda in Iraq in the so-called Baghdad belt. For others, the events conjured up memories of uniformed Shiite militiamen busting down doors and dragging away Sunni men.

But no one was sure.

“All of the people here are terrified. We don’t know what’s going to happen at night. We are going to lock our doors and stay inside. Only God can help us,” Hawr Rajab resident Hadi Hamid Abbas said. “I am lost and I don’t know who to accuse.”

The killings were a gruesome example of the dread that has descended on the rich farmland that girdles the southern edges of the capital.

Only a hard-fought campaign in 2007 and 2008 by the Awakening groups and the Americans rid the area of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s enclaves. But the promise of incorporating the fighters, many of them former insurgents, into the security forces dissolved when the program was handed over to the Iraqi government in late 2008 and most Sunni fighters were moved into civil ministries.

Now, as U.S. troops draw down to 50,000 troops by the end of August and the Iraqi government wages a campaign of arrests against senior tribal and Awakening leaders, residents are afraid. With trust in Shiite-led government forces almost nonexistent, rural Sunni communities believe they are at the mercy of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

An Iraqi officer warned that the militant group would seek to exploit the absence of key Sunni leaders caught up in the government’s sweeps.

“It will be used by gunmen to attack this side or that side and the security forces. Also, such issues will make the trust between the people and the security forces disappear,” said the officer, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “If such situations continue, I would not exclude civil war.”

U.S. military officers have received tips that Al Qaeda in Iraq is offering communities with former Awakening fighters the possibility of forgiveness in return for havens from Iraqi forces.

“This is a good opportunity for Al Qaeda to come back,” one U.S. officer said.

In Hawr Rajab, residents say there are too few army checkpoints since the Awakening program was in effect disbanded, removing its fighters from the streets and with them a measure of security. Last spring, security forces from Baghdad had also detained Hawr Rajab’s top Awakening member.

Mustafa Kamal Shibeeb, the onetime commander of all the Awakening forces for the Dura area, which includes Hawr Rajab, warned that Al Qaeda in Iraq was taking advantage of the situation.

“In that village, no one was present. During the days of the Awakening, we had 200 men protecting that area,” Shibeeb said. “I advised the government over and over to keep the Awakenings until the election, and now I can’t do anything. I feel helpless.”

The commander worries about fighters from Al Qaeda in Iraq, but he has other problems too. Only months ago Iraqi forces had arrested him regarding a killing by his men while fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007.

After he was released, a government body barred him from running for parliament. It accused him of being a high-ranking member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, despite the fact that the old regime had executed some of his immediate relatives.

“I don’t have the power or capability to protect the region or people,” Shibeeb said. “Maybe I can protect myself, and maybe, in the end, I can’t even protect myself.”

The commander said he hoped to leave Iraq as soon as his children finished their school semester this spring.

Last fall, U.S. officers had worried about the effect of losing prominent leaders such as Shibeeb. One officer, then stationed in the area, cautioned that it would send a bad message to the local population about how those who had fought Al Qaeda in Iraq were treated.

The sentiments of fear and helplessness are spread across the Baghdad belt. Residents from the town of Abu Ghraib last week described themselves as being hounded by the Iraqi army and attacked by Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Some seethed. “Even if we don’t have weapons, we will carry our knives,” a man said, angry about the recent arrests of Awakening leaders, including one last week.

A woman listened to his boasts and mocked him. “Talk with reality. You won’t even hold a demonstration now because you are afraid of getting arrested,” said the woman, who, like the man, did not want to be identified for fear of being targeted.

The man looked sheepish and with his smile acknowledged she was right. They were too tired to fight.

He summed up the sentiment of many Sunnis who fought Al Qaeda in Iraq and now felt clobbered by the military: “We just want a leader who will not sneak up on us while we sleep to arrest us. We want someone who will provide us security.” LAT

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