BAGHDAD, Iraq - Instead of becoming a Middle Eastern model of pro-Western democracy, as the Bush administration had hoped, Iraq is being swept by Sunni and Shiite Muslim extremism.
High unemployment, little visible progress toward rebuilding the country and dissatisfaction with leaders appointed by foreigners are herding thousands of disenchanted Iraqis into the hands of hard-liners, according to political parties, Islamic scholars and social scientists.
The city of Fallujah, for example, once a cornerstone of Saddam Hussein's secular rule, has become a seething no-man's land of Islamic militancy where women must be veiled, alcohol sellers are flogged and an American passport is a death sentence.
Since U.S. Marines pulled out in May after a month-long siege, a mix of homegrown guerrillas and foreign holy warriors have taken over Fallujah, now nicknamed "Little Saudi Arabia" for its extremist brand of Sunni Islam.
"You go there and see the mujahedeen at the checkpoints," said a co-worker of three Lebanese men who were taken hostage, then murdered, in Fallujah last week. "Where are the Marines? Where is the Iraqi army?"
The three were hog-tied and beaten with steel pipes. Then one man was shot several times in the face, another was disemboweled and the third was hacked to pieces, said surviving hostages and other workers at their Lebanese-owned contracting firm.
The kidnappers made no ransom demand. They simply dumped the three mutilated corpses in an industrial area as a statement about who's running Fallujah.
Sunni militants such as those in Fallujah, who seek to impose Saudi or Taliban-style Islamic puritanism, pose one threat to the new, secular interim Iraqi government that takes charge July 1. Radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr and other Shiite extremists, with fertile recruiting ground in Iraq's volatile Shiite majority, pose another, calling for an armed struggle to create an Iranian-style theocracy.
The conflict between the two, now 1,324 years old and going strong, could plunge the country into civil war and anarchy.
"Iraq is now the crossroads for the two most rigid extremist groups in the Islamic world," said Sadoun al Dulami, the head of the Iraqi Center for Research and Strategic Studies. "They think they hold all the truth. We left one brutal regime and now we are preparing ourselves for an even bloodier one."
Even parts of cosmopolitan Baghdad are slipping into the hands of militant Islamists, who, for example, forced a Christian social club to close its pool because "some extremist will throw a grenade at women in swimsuits," said Rita Jamal, 19, a club member.
A masked jihadi (holy warrior) flashing the victory sign is spray-painted across campus at Baghdad University, where seniors graduating this month only half-jokingly call themselves the "Terrorism Class of 2004."
Bearded men armed with long sticks sometimes stand outside the campus and strike college women who don't cover their hair or don't wear loose-fitting clothes, students said. Newly minted radicals have stopped saying hello to moderate classmates, and militant young women sometimes smear the lipstick off the faces of their former friends.
"Their minds are owned by the extremists now," said Safa Hussein, 21, a senior at the university. "In Baghdad, we used to have a special kind of open environment, but the Islamic waves are rolling in and the clerics are coming out of the woodwork. If they have their way, we'll be living in Iran or Saudi soon."
The mosque is the only remaining occupation-free zone for millions of Iraqis who are fed up with empty promises from the coalition. And the messages from powerful imams have nothing to do with helping the United States build a free and democratic Iraq.
"These people were not invited to contribute to the political agenda, not invited to the Governing Council and were ignored until now, when they want to say, `We're here,'" said Waleed al Hilli, a spokesman for the conservative Shiite Dawa Party. "If you're not eating and you don't have a job, you can't think properly, and anyone can attract you to do anything."
While their political and theological battles date to the year 680, Sunni and Shiite extremists are united, at least for now, by a common desire to drive the United States and its allies out of Iraq.
There are reports of Sunni fighters in Fallujah supplying Shiite guerrillas in Najaf, and the leading militant Sunni newspaper this week heralded al Sadr on the front page. Al Sadr, meanwhile, has praised fighters in Fallujah for driving out U.S. troops and bringing back a "pure" Islam.
Exporting the Fallujah model is a key aim of Hareth Athari, a leading Sunni militant with headquarters at one of Baghdad's most magnificent mosques. He said he condemned the killings of the three Arab businessmen, but quickly added that he doubted they were killed "without a reason."
"Fallujah is still safe and better than any other town in Iraq," Athari said. "Maybe, now and then, there are some events like that, but all good-willed people are safe in Fallujah. The ones with bad intentions should stay out."
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