BAGHDAD, IRAQ - Fadia was crying when we arrived, but explained she had a stomachache and that it wasnt serious. The pain would soon pass, she said, tears streaming from her red, swollen eyes.
Fadias home, in a tiny, poverty-stricken Christian Ghetto within Baghdad, was one of my first stops after arriving in Iraq. Her uncle works in my apartment building in Chicago, and he had asked that I check up on his family. Being Christian in a predominantly Muslim country, their already dangerous postwar situation was much more precarious, he explained.
After reading a letter from her uncle, Fadia invited my driver and me to sit in the shade of her familys front porch. Her parents were at the market, she said, and would return in a few hours. She served tea and cold water and eventually talked about her life in Baghdad, such as it was.
Fadia and her two sisters, Wassan and Rasha, are rarely allowed to leave their parents small house. They are too afraid, she said.
Rampant rape, kidnapping , car-jackings and murder have imprisoned most Iraqi women within their own homes. The rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which strongly discourages women from appearing in public without a male escort, has also frightened women into staying out of sight. Understandably, Christian women, discriminated against for hundreds of years, are doubly scared.
"There is no security," the teenaged Fadia said, an anxious look on her face, which by now was free of tears but filled with frustration. "We cannot go out." Instead, she and her sisters sit in their house, which boils several hours a day when the electricity goes out.
"Security," or, rather, the lack of it, is all anyone wants to talk about in Iraq these days. Westerners and wealthy Iraqis cower inside five-star hotels protected by razor-wire and American tanks, and warn each other against walking alone - even up the block to buy a pack of cigarettes.
The American occupational government, the Coalition Provisional Authority, has barricaded itself behind layers upon layers of intense security, completely isolating itself from the Iraqi people and just about everyone else.
The US military is so freaked out that it recently shut down a main Baghdad thoroughfare in front of a hotel occupied by soldiers, forcing Iraqi motorists to detour around through a narrow side street and jamming traffic for blocks.
There are no military patrols through Fadias neighborhood and there is no visible Iraqi police presence. The Americans have warned Iraqis not to carry weapons or theyll be treated as combatants, so neighborhoods cannot defend themselves against the armed bands of hoodlums that roam unchallenged throughout the sprawling city.
Many of those same criminals now terrorizing Iraqi citizens were among the 40,000 convicts whom Sadaam Hussein released from Iraqi prisons before the war. But the Americans have so far shown little interest in rounding up the worst of the bad guys, which has only increased the general state of anarchy and fear.
In the holy city of Najaf, two hours south of Baghdad, hundreds of mourners silently baked under the noontime sun and watched as workers sifted through and then hauled off the rubble of a car-bomb explosion that had, two days earlier, killed Shia religious leader Mohammad Baqir al Hakim and almost one hundred others.
Iraqi police were barring reporters from entering the bomb site, claiming that the mourners were angry at the media for publishing photos of the victims. "They are shooting journalists," the policeman warned. But a local man, a former Iraqi soldier, helped my driver and I slip past the barricades.
I snapped a couple of quick photos before Safa, my driver, hustled me across the street. "I fear you are crazy," he said.
Moments before he was assassinated, Hakim had delivered a sermon criticizing the Americans for not allowing Shias to protect themselves. And his message echoed in the crowd when I arrived two days later.
"The Americans cannot protect us," said one mourner, who would not identify himself. "We must be allowed to protect ourselves against these criminals." Others standing nearby forcefully voiced their agreement.
Several minutes later, on the opposite side of the mosque, an angry crowd gathered to threaten a thief who was being arrested by Iraqi police.
Despite widespread calls throughout Iraq and America to give Iraqis more control over their own security, its not as easy as it sounds.
Hakim, along with his brother, who sits on the Iraqi Governing Council, led "Badrs Brigade," a religious militia that disarmed under American pressure.
Hakims final sermon demanded that the Americans allow his brigade to rearm. Two days after the bombing, members of Badrs Brigade were spotted carrying AK-47 rifles, unchallenged by American soldiers.
But an armed Badrs Brigade could easily spark a civil war.
A week before he was assassinated, Hakims militia clashed with ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq after local Shias, ethnic Turks, blamed the Kurds for the destruction of a newly built Shia shrine. The fight lasted for days, and at times threatened to bring the Turkish Army into the conflict. If Badrs Brigade is even semi-officially allowed to rearm, the Kurds will undoubtedly pick up weapons.
Then theres "Sadrs Brigade," also called "Army of the Mahdi," a still-unarmed radical Shia organization led by Muqtada Sadr, a young, charismatic cleric who wields huge influence in Baghdads sprawling Shia slum, Sadr City.
The Sadr family and the Hakim family have feuded for years, and if Hakims brigade is armed, Sadr will surely move to "defend" himself against his rival Shias. Sadr is also loudly anti-American, and repeatedly denounced Hakim and his brother for cooperating with the occupying powers.
And then there are the various Sunni Muslims, who would soon get into the act, followed by every other faction, tribe, sect and political party imaginable.
It seems that almost everyone here believes were sitting on a precipice, and leaning precariously towards civil disaster. But it didnt have to happen this way.
A year ago, American General John Abizaid published an internal Defense Department book about urban warfare. Abizaids "Doctrine for Joint Urban Operations" was all but ignored by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, who ran the Iraq War and the initial postwar occupation.
Abizaid wrote about the massive troop requirements for urban warfare; warned of rapid burnout of soldiers and equipment assigned to urban battlegrounds; and time and again referenced catastrophic instances of over-confidence and under-preparedness among commanders and of disastrous misunderstandings of local cultures and their motivations. He also stressed how "essential" it is that "law enforcement" and other "routine activities" be "returned to civilian agencies as quickly as possible."
Abizaid was brought in a month ago to clean up the mess created by Franks and Rumsfeld. But it may be too late.
Meanwhile, back in Baghdad, Fadias mother and father, Janan and Hermes, have finally arrived home. After using my satellite phone to call her sister and brother-in-law in Chicago, Janan sat uncomfortably and talked about her life, voicing the expected complaints about crime, the lack of electricity, the harsh treatment by Muslims and the absence of jobs.
I asked Janan how she felt about her familys future.
"I can only hope, I can only pray it gets better," she said, then asked if I would please take her daughters back to America.
- Rich Miller is a Chicago-based journalist.