BAGHDAD, Iraq – A portly Shiite cleric, Abu Qusai (search) sheds his black robe for a training suit and exchanges his white turban for a baseball cap, an effort to mask his identity for a risky trip through what has become known as the "triangle of death."
The region has become a death zone for many Shiite Muslims (search), Westerners and members of the Iraqi security services, many of whom have become the victims of Sunni Muslim insurgents and gunmen — some who receive bounties of several thousand dollars.
The triangle, formed by the cities of Youssifiyah to the northwest, Latifiyah to the south and Mahmoudiya to the east, holds the fastest routes from Baghdad southward to the Shiite shrines in Najaf and Karbala.
The area is no less dangerous for foreigners than the better known insurgent strongholds west of the capital, including Fallujah and Ramadi.
French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot disappeared Aug. 20 on their way from Baghdad to Najaf. They remain missing, though their Syrian driver, Mohammed al-Joundi, was found by U.S. troops last week in Fallujah.
Two members of a Polish television crew were killed and a third was wounded in an attack near Mahmoudiya in May. Four months earlier, two Iraqis working for CNN were shot and killed while traveling through the same area.
Bayan Jaber of the major Shiite political party said that a week ago, five Shiites traveling to Najaf from Diyala province near the Iranian border were waylaid in the "triangle of death" and shot dead. The attackers demanded — and received — $15,000 from their families to return the bodies.
According to Jaber, insurgent leaders in the area offer cash bounties for killing certain kinds of people: $1,000 for a Shiite, $2,000 for a member of the Iraqi National Guard and $3,000 for an American.
Abu Qusai, who asked that his real name not be published out of concern for his safety, goes through the triangle on trips to the Shiite holy city of Najaf. He said he disguises himself to avoid the fate of two colleagues, Shiite clerics Basheer al-Jazaeri and Karim Baghdadi.
They were gunned down in separate incidents while en route to Najaf for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended last week.
According to Abu Qusai, gunmen chased al-Jazaeri's car after he stopped for gasoline. Gunmen blocked the road, dragged him from his car and demanded his identification papers.
"They killed him and set fire to his car when they found out that he is a Shiite," Abu Qusai said.
Baghdadi received the same treatment, Abu Qusai said.
"Dozens of people have been killed during Ramadan because of their sect," said Hussain al-Shahristani, a close aide of Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. "The government is responsible for protecting its citizens and for securing a safe way for them to move."
U.S. Marines operate in the area, reinforced for the month by Britain's Black Watch regiment. Shortly after arriving from the relatively peaceful south, the Black Watch lost three soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter in a suicide attack Nov. 4.
One day after the Black Watch attack, insurgents blew up a bridge near Latifiyah, and four buses carrying Shiite pilgrims to Karbala plunged into the Euphrates River, killing 18 people. Two days later, 12 Iraqi National Guardsmen were abducted and murdered on their way home to Najaf by militants dressed as policemen.
With U.S. and Iraqi forces unable to stop the killings, many professional drivers are taking a 150-mile detour from Baghdad to Najaf. The route takes travelers well east of Latifiyah, whose name derives from the Arabic word for "decent" but which is the most dangerous point on the "triangle of death."
A taxi driver from Najaf, who gave his name only as Abu Maki, said Latifiyah residents call the insurgents the "Opel gangs" because they often use Opel cars looted from police stations to carry out their attacks.
Abu Maki said that he was stopped once on the Baghdad-to-Najaf highway by the Opel Gangs, who "beat me up with two of the passengers, broke the windows and warned us not to approach this area again."
Some Iraqis attribute the trouble in the area to demographic changes in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein relocated large numbers of Sunni Muslims into what historically has been a largely Shiite area. The plan was to settle members of his own religious community along main routes from Baghdad to the Shiite heartland of the south.
Saddam recruited members of Sunni clans and tribes in the area into the Republican Guard and the intelligence services. During the failed Shiite uprising of 1991, Sunnis, especially from the al-Janabat tribe, were used to curb the rebellion.
Many of the Sunnis that relocated to the "triangle of death," including the al-Janabats, came from Anbar, the volatile Sunni province at the heart of the insurgency where Fallujah is located.
Residents said insurgents have been distributing leaflets warning that Sunni landowners who lease land to Shiite farmers face death if they don't dismiss their tenants. The U.N.-funded ReliefWeb said last month that about 500 Shiite families had fled the Latifiyah area for Karbala because of threats.
That has raised prospects of a backlash among Shiites who have decided that they must defend themselves if the government and the multinational force cannot.
In Basra, a group called the "Brigades of Anger" has emerged, vowing to defend Shiites in Iraq from any group deemed a threat. A leader of the group, Dheya al-Mahdi, told The Associated Press that he will give the go-ahead for his followers to avenge the killing of Shiites.
Al-Mahdi blames Wahhabis, an extreme sect of Sunni Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia, for encouraging and funding operations aimed at Shiites in Iraq.