Brother of Hussein al-Tarash cries over coffins containing some of the nine members of his brother's family at the start of a funeral procession
Shi'ite Muslim leaders in Iraq say they fear that the threat of a civil war, pitting the country's largest Muslim group against minority Sunni Arabs, has escalated to dangerous levels. Their comments follow months of violence against both Shi'ites and Sunnis, including mass executions, kidnappings and assassinations.

The cleric at the tiny al-Rasul Shi'ite mosque in Doura is no stranger to violence against Shi'ite Muslims.

Mohammed Hassan al-Asadi's eyes narrow bitterly behind his silver-framed glasses, recalling the suffering the country's majority Shi'ites endured for more than 30 years under former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Millions of Shi'ites were stripped of their rights and left to languish in abject poverty. When they rebelled, the Sunni Arab leader ordered the destruction of Shi'ite villages, and in some cases, had their residents killed. Shi'ites say much of the persecution was for no other reason than long-standing religious differences with Sunni Muslims.

But the 50-year-old cleric says nothing prepared him for what happened in his mosque one day early last month, when four armed gunmen burst in and opened fire at several dozen fleeing worshippers. Two men were killed. Several others were critically wounded.

Mr. Asadi says the top spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shi'ites, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is always reminding his followers that there is no difference between Shi'ites and Sunnis. "If that's so, how can one Muslim do this to another?" the cleric asks.

Tension between the two religious communities has escalated dramatically since elections in January, which were boycotted by most of Iraq's five million Sunni Arabs. The landmark vote empowered majority Shi'ites for the first time in the country's history and the new government, made up mostly of anti-Saddam Shi'ites and Kurds, greatly increased Sunni fears of being marginalized.

The Sunni Arab-led insurgency in Iraq, which had previously focused most of its fury on American troops, foreigners, and Iraqis working with the U.S. coalition, began a parallel campaign of intimidation and violence against ordinary Shi'ite Muslims.

Now, hardly a day goes by in Iraq without bodies of Shi'ites being discovered somewhere. The dead are found floating in the Tigris River. Some are dumped in ditches or alongside highways. Most of the victims are young Shi'ite men, but women and children have also been killed.

One of the most horrific killings occurred on Sunday in a mainly Shi'ite district of Baladiyat in eastern Baghdad. A gunman pumped lethal rounds, one each, into the heads of a woman and her seven young children while they slept in their home. Family members and friends of the woman blamed Sunnis for the attack.

Shi'ite religious leaders have not been spared either. In mid-May, gunmen killed Sheikh Qassim Gharawi, a top aid to spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in a drive-by shooting.

Sheikh Gharawi is one of several aides to Mr. Sistani who have been killed or wounded in insurgent attacks in recent months. Officials of the Shi'ite religious political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have also been targets of assassinations.

In Doura, 27-year-old Rana Basil sways to Arabic pop music while cooking a modest lunch of rice and vegetables for herself, her two children, and five other family members. On a wall near the kitchen, a large picture of the Imam Ali, the revered prophet of Shi'ite Muslims, hangs as a reminder of her family's religious roots.

Ms. Basil apologizes for the meager food and explains that she has not been able to go grocery shopping. She says these days, all Shi'ites in Doura risk being kidnapped and killed if they step outside their homes.

"I'm not as scared for myself as I am for my children. These Sunni thugs will kill us just because we're Shi'ites," Ms. Basil laments. She says many of her neighbors received death threats and have moved to predominately Shi'ite neighborhoods, believing that the violence against them will only get worse here.

Although many more Shi'ites have been killed than Sunnis, ordinary Sunni Arabs say they, too, are increasingly becoming victims of sectarian violence.

In another part of Doura, Yasser Abdul Hamid al-Jabouri watches the traffic from his small shop, where he sells an assortment of bathroom pipes and other fixtures.

The 42-year-old Sunni Arab says he is constantly on the lookout for the Shi'ite Badr Brigade, the militia whose presence in Doura, he says, can only mean bad news for Sunni Arabs.

The shopkeeper says there have been many brutal kidnappings and killing of Sunnis in Doura and elsewhere in Iraq. Mr. Jabouri says he believes some have been ordered by officials of the Shi'ite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and carried out by the group's Badr Brigade militia.

Mr. Jabouri is not the only Sunni who believes the Badr Brigade is responsible for killings. In May, a leading Sunni cleric in Baghdad sharply raised tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites after he publicly accused the Badr militia of killing at least four Sunni clerics.

The Badr Brigade was formed by Iraqi Shi'ites in Iran in the 1980's to oppose Saddam Hussein. It exists entirely separate from the Iraqi Army and police and despite Badr assurances that the group has largely disbanded, it is still viewed with deep suspicion among most Sunni Arabs as being a hit squad for Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government.

Both moderate Sunnis and Shi'ites acknowledge that existing tension is also being exploited by Sunni Islamic fundamentalists, who have openly declared their aim to foment a broader conflict.

Having been driven from their stronghold in Fallujah, last year, by American forces, Sunni radicals have pushed into areas around Baghdad, where they have established bases in neighborhoods like Doura and often speak on behalf of Sunni residents.

A Shi'ite member of the Iraqi National Assembly, Ali al-Dabbagh, says most Shi'ites understand that not all Sunnis are against them. But he says Sunni Arabs have failed to make that message clear to the Shi'ite people.

"The sectarian tension is definitely destroying the country," he said. "We feel it is the responsibility of the Sunnis and the Sunni clerics and Sunni politicians that they should raise their voices.

"One of the reasons they can't condemn these acts is that they feel afraid from these terrorists," continued Ali al-Dabbagh. "But they have to declare that this is against the interest of the Iraqis and the interest of Sunnis."

A spokesman for the Sunni political group, National Dialogue Council, says most Sunnis do want to live in peace with Shi'ites and reject the radical views of Sunni fundamentalists. But the spokesman, Saleh Mutlak, also warns that if Sunnis continue to believe that they are being targeted unfairly, ordinary Sunnis may begin agreeing with extremists, who want to start a civil war.

"If there is support, it's because of the reaction of the killings from the government, the detainees' bad treatment, and the bias attitude of the United States against the Sunnis," he said. "Otherwise, everybody is against it."

Angry Shi'ite tribal sheikhs, meanwhile, have reportedly been asking Grand Ayatollah Sistani to issue an edict, permitting them to go after Sunnis who kill Shi'ites.

The spiritual leader, whose word is law for many Shi'ites, has refused to grant such a request. But Shi'ite patience is clearly wearing thin.

At the al-Rasul mosque in Doura, Sheikh Asadi grips an old AK-47 assault rifle he has bought to protect his mosque. He says he now carries it wherever he goes.

The cleric says he sometimes see graffiti on the walls in Doura that says, "There is but only one God and the Shi'ite people are our enemy." "To me, that means they choose to be our enemy," Mr. Asadi says. "We don't choose to be theirs but they are clearly provoking us."