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The government's standard response to each new outrage is to deny that police were involved and instead finger "criminal gangs" wearing knockoff uniforms and using stolen weapons and vehicles. Occasionally, blame is directed at the militias but never by name. After all, the political groups that control the militias are key components of the Shi'ite coalition that has the most seats in parliament and that includes al-Maliki's party. The only militia to feel the Prime Minister's "iron fist" was the toothless Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a small, unarmed band of Iranian rebels dedicated to toppling the regime in Tehran; it had been confined to a single base outside Baghdad and was monitored by the U.S. Nobody had accused the Mujahedin-e-Khalq of any atrocities on Iraqi soil, and al-Maliki's decision to evict the group smacked of tokenism. Sunni politicians seized on the eviction as proof that al-Maliki was doing Tehran's bidding.
For Sunnis in Baghdad, the sight of policemen is cause for concern rather than reassurance. Traffic checkpoints are especially perilous. Recently three TIME staff members--brothers, all Sunni--were detained at a police checkpoint for five hours. They began to worry when a Shi'ite friend who had been riding with them was allowed to leave. When the men showed their media badges, issued by the U.S. military, the cops accused them of being American spies. "We'll send you to the Interior Ministry," a cop said, obviously enjoying their discomfort as he bundled them into the back of a pickup truck. "You may be released or jailed, or maybe somebody will use an electric drill on you." In the end, the TIME men were able to talk their way out of captivity after the owner of a shop near the checkpoint vouched for them. "The police realized that if we disappeared, the shopkeeper might be able to identify them as the ones who captured us," says one of the brothers. A few days later, one of the brothers had another close shave when he stopped in a busy neighborhood to buy black-market gas. A car bomb went off 50 yards away, destroying his car. Luckily, he had stepped out of the vehicle to negotiate with the seller; he got away with minor shrapnel wounds. One tiny shard ripped into his shirt pocket in a direct line to his heart. The shrapnel arrowed through a thick wad of Iraqi currency and some loose paper and was finally stopped by his plastic ID card. "At last, I can say money saved my life," he jokes.
Almost every Sunni family I meet seems to have a horror story that starts with a policeman at a checkpoint asking for identification. It's profiling, Iraqi style. The harassment ranges from getting insulting, sniggering comments ("Nice car. Where did you steal it?") to being handcuffed, blindfolded and hauled off to prison or, worse, a torture chamber. The most vulnerable are those who have obviously Sunni names, such as Omar. I have interviewed more than a dozen Omars, including two of Mahmud's nephews, who have endured varying degrees of persecution from police or militias. As a precaution, many Sunnis are buying fake ID cards with safe Shi'ite names.