BAGHDAD, Iraq - As Iraq's newly elected leaders assemble the foundation of a democracy, a killing epidemic has taken hold of this troubled nation. Ministry of Health statistics show that record numbers of Iraqi civilians are coming to violent ends, particularly here in the capital.
Political assassinations and bombings have garnered worldwide attention. But Iraqi officials say that violence unrelated to the insurgency is growing and that Iraqis are more likely to die at the hands of kidnappers, carjackers and angry neighbors than they are from car bombs.
In some cases, authorities say, the motives are so opaque that they cannot tell if they are investigating a crime disguised as an act of war or a political assassination masquerading as a violent business dispute.
In Baghdad, officials at the central morgue counted 8,035 deaths by unnatural causes in 2004, up from 6,012 the previous year, when the United States invaded Iraq. In 2002, the final full year of Saddam Hussein's regime, the morgue examined about 1,800 bodies. Of the deaths occurring now, 60 percent are caused by gunshot wounds, officials say, most unrelated to the insurgency. Between 20 and 30 bodies arrive at the morgue daily, and the victims are overwhelmingly male.
Much of the violence, officials say, is inspired by the ethnic, tribal and religious rivalries that were held in check by Hussein's brutal rule, facilitated by a ready supply of firearms. That deadly combination has let loose a wave of vengeance killings, tribal vendettas, mercenary kidnappings and thievery.
"The only virtue of the old regime is that Iraq enjoyed a state of stability," said Lt. Faris Jubrail of the Baghdad police. "It was a reaction to the huge size of punishment that the regime would practice. This would never have happened then."
Police say they are also growing increasingly worried about the recent arrival of organized criminal groups that trade in arms, drugs, stolen cars and blackmail. In some cases, police say, insurgents have paid gangs of thugs to kidnap doctors and engineers or kill barbers for giving Western-style haircuts. On Tuesday in Baghdad, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed the police, saying that criminals for hire were playing a growing role in the insurgency.
Police say the gangs aren't motivated by a desire to end the occupation - they're just looking to make a buck.
"In the old days, these things were contained by the regime, but now they are unleashed," an Iraqi police spokesman said.
An example of one such incident, the officer said, was the killing of 11 workers and customers Feb. 11 at the Happiness Bakery in New Baghdad, a working-class Shiite Muslim suburb on the capital's east side.
Investigators first suspected Sunni Muslim insurgents - the bakeries had images of Shiite clerics and posters urging customers to vote in last month's elections, and the attack occurred during the run-up to Ashura, a major Shiite holiday.
Police changed their thinking when witnesses recognized several killers as Shiites. Authorities now suspect a tribal vendetta. They speculate that a gang might have been hired to commit the crime and make it appear as if it was done by insurgents.
Employee Hassan Hadi, 30, said a crowd of customers was clamoring for warm loaves of breakfast samoon that Friday morning at the popular bakery on Martyrs Street. Hadi was busy twisting gobs of dough into loaves, while baker Ali Salim hoisted them into the oven with a broad wooden paddle.
They joked as they worked. The laughter stopped abruptly when gunfire exploded just outside the bakery. Beyond Hadi's view, three cars loaded with armed men had just emptied onto the street, and the gunmen were rushing the stores. "God is the greatest!" a gunman screamed.
Alarm turned to terror within the Happiness Bakery as a second burst of gunfire shattered the front window and tore through the cashier, killing him.
Hadi slipped behind an enormous bread mixer and peeked at the front door. He watched a man wearing a T-shirt and a black mask enter the bakery. He was holding a Kalashnikov rifle.
Then, Hadi said, "the shooting was inside the shop, and I was feeling the bullets were killing us one by one." Salim, the baker, died in front of his oven. Another employee, Abdul Rehman, was shot as he leaped over the bread mixer. Hadi felt a bullet tear through his hip.
The documentation of deaths in Iraq is spotty. Neither the U.S. military nor its embassy in Iraq claims to track or tabulate civilian deaths in Iraq.
Some groups insist the Iraqis killed by U.S.-led forces far outnumber those slain in crimes. The independent organization Iraq Body Count tabulates Iraqi deaths reported in the local media. They estimate that up to 18,670 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the United States invaded nearly two years ago.
A study in the British medical journal Lancet estimated that more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed since the invasion and attributed most of the deaths to coalition forces.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.