BAGHDAD — The gunmen killed Mohammed al Saadi, a bank clerk, at a crowded bus station. They gunned down Abdurrakhman al Jabouri, an elementary school teacher, at a Baghdad bazaar. They killed Razzaq Abdul Khaleq, a newspaper salesman, in his kiosk, in front of his stunned customers.
The victims weren't helping Americans, which could have made them targets for violent reprisals. They didn't belong to criminal gangs, nor were they active in any of the new, sometimes fiercely confrontational religious and political groupings that have sprung up in the wake of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
The only thing they had in common was their membership in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party — and that, the victims' relatives believe, was the sole reason for their death warrants.
Just how many former Baath officials and party members have been killed since the war ended is difficult to pin down. But interviews with former Baathists and Iraqis familiar with some of the killings suggest that the spate of slayings, which they say began almost immediately after Hussein's regime collapsed, has claimed several hundred lives across the country.
The killings appear to single out anyone from senior party officials to night guards and they have sown fear among party members, forcing some to go into hiding.
Iraqi police, overwhelmed by the violence that has engulfed the country in the past few months, do not have the ability to sort out the various possible motives for the killings, said Major Khazim Salih, a spokesman for Baghdad police.
"We have so many murder cases, it's hard to tell the reasons — revenge, looting, robbery, quarrel," said Salih.
The victims' relatives say that their loved ones had no personal enemies and were slain in broad daylight, in front of witnesses, and none of their possessions were taken. They say that because nothing else seems to be the reason, the killers, possibly tipped off by lists of Baathists looted from party headquarters after the war, are seeking payback for 30 years of slayings, torture and reprisals organized by the party that killed tens of thousands of people.
Police officials agree.
"It can very well be vengeance. Many people are angry. God knows," Salih said.
Initially, the killings appeared to focus on Baathist icons, such as Daoud Qais, a singer whose odes to Hussein were broadcast daily on Iraqi television. He was shot dead outside his house in May. The police have not investigated his death, but many Iraqis believe Qais was killed because of his collaboration with Hussein's regime.
Recently, however, low-level Baathists have been targets, among them bank clerk al Saadi, whose relatives say he had joined the party for the same reason thousands of other Iraqis did: to get a decent job and to avoid being hassled by authorities.
"Under Saddam, if you were looking for a job, if you wanted to study, you had to be a Baath Party member," said Isam, al Saadi's son. Isam, who is a police officer, said he had to join the party to study at Baghdad's police academy. U.S. officials believe roughly 1.5 million out of 24 million Iraqis were Baath members.
Such reprisal killings against rank-and-file Baathists could add more complications to U.S.-led efforts to rehabilitate Iraq, especially as they hand over more authority to Iraqis. U.S. officials have banned Baathists from top government positions, but allowed them to work at lower-key posts.
Because of Hussein's policy of allowing only Baathists to become government employees, the Iraqi police force, on which the governing Coalition Provisional Authority now relies to bring order to the country's volatile streets, consists almost entirely of party members. Public school teachers, doctors in state-run hospitals, and even bus drivers were party members.
Living in Fear
Abdurrakhman al Jabouri spent the last months of his life in fear, said his cousin, Ahmed. After the war, the 29-year-old elementary school teacher rarely left the house where he lived with his wife and their 3-year-old son; the few times he did go out, he was convinced that he was being followed.
One day last month, al Jabouri went shopping and never came back. A grocery store owner at a Baghdad bazaar told Ahmed that two gunmen approached al Jabouri outside the shop, shot him in the chest and ran away. Ahmed found al Jabouri's body in a hospital morgue five days later.
"He only joined the party because he wanted to be a teacher," Ahmed said. "He never hurt anyone."
Mohammed al Saadi was waiting for a bus at a crowded bus station one afternoon three weeks ago when an unmarked black sedan pulled up, witnesses told Isam and his cousin, Ala. A young man got out of the car and approached the 56-year-old bank clerk from behind.
"Mohammed?" the young man called. As al Saadi turned around, the man pulled out a .45 caliber pistol and shot the bank clerk in the face. Then he got into the car and sped off.
"There were maybe 50 people at the bus station, and at first, they did not pick up his body and take him to the hospital," Isam said. "They were all afraid that someone might kill them, too."
"Why did they kill him?" Ala lamented. "All these new parties in Iraq, they all want to start a civil war here. They have all the power and no one is there to stop them."
None of Iraq's nascent political leaders openly call for reprisal killings of Baathists, although some have demanded that former Baath members renounce their former allegiances. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a member of Iraq's U.S.- appointed Governing Council and the leader of the paramilitary Badr Brigade, called on the council members last week to "root out all Baath Party gangsters and Saddam followers by force."
A religious edict, or fatwa, issued in April by Ayatollah Kadhem al Husseini al Haeri, an Iraqi-born cleric based in Iran, urges his followers in Iraq to "kill all Saddamists who try to take charge" and "to cut short any chance of the return to power of second-line Baathists."
Haeri's followers in Iraq are led by Moqtada al-Sadr, a young cleric who is immensely popular in the slums of Baghdad's impoverished Sadr City, home to about 2 million Shiites. Al-Sadr's militia, Jush al Mahdi, say they have heard about the killings but deny any knowledge of who the perpetrators might be.
But a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Azad Ali Sistani, a moderate Shiite leader who resides in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, said Islam forbids "to take the initiative and punish those who played a direct role in the murder of innocents" as well as Baathist informers "because punishment is the resort of the victim's family after confirmation of the crime by religious court."
It was Sistani's fatwa that reassured al Saadi, a Sistani follower, that he would not be a target of revenge killings, said his son, Isam. When American forces reopened al Saadi's bank, he returned to work, unaware that somebody was about to sentence him to death.
"I asked my father many times if he felt unsafe, if there was anything he had done in the past that he should be worried about," Isam said. "He would always reply: 'My son, you know I've always been nice to people. I have nothing to be afraid of.' "
Then, one night in July, a group of men approached al Saadi's house, shot at it, and ran away.
A month later, al Saadi was killed.
In Baghdad's poor al Qatana district, where houses cluster so close that neighbors can shake hands through second-floor windows, Adnan Ali Abdul Riva, a school guard, understood the warning right away. Shortly after his neighbor, Khaleq the newspaperman, was killed, unknown gunmen shot up his cast iron-and- glass door, spraying the wall and ceiling of his small living room with bullets. Abdul Riva went into hiding. Even his wife, Fathiya, does not know where he is.
Across the street, Saad Abdul Riva, no relation to Adnan, also contemplated moving out. Last week, in the middle of the night, someone sprayed his wooden door with bullets.
Other former Baathists have fled their homes. "We will burn this Baathist criminal" reads the sign on one house in the poor al Mahdia district. Neighbors say the minor Baath Party member who had lived in the house moved out days after the sign appeared.
Leaning against the hot concrete walls of her house, Fathiya glanced above the heads of neighborhood children playing around the slimy stone sewer that runs through the center of her narrow street, wondering whose house — or whose husband — will be the next to be shot at.
Five months ago, she said, her family rejoiced over the demise of Hussein's hated dictatorship. But not now.
"We got rid of Saddam — now we have 100 Saddams," she said.www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2003/09/21/MN81296.DTLE-mail this article