The triple bombing on Friday was frighteningly well-planned. The first attacker, a woman, walked into the heavily fortified mosque compound just as services were letting out. She approached the women's line, where worshippers were being frisked and their bags checked by security.
As worshippers streamed past her, headed home, she set off her suicide vest, sending scores of panicked people running back into the mosque, away from what they first thought was a mortar attack.
That's when two more bombers — apparently men disguised as women — mixed with the crowd and ran inside. One set off his explosives in a packed courtyard. The other tried to reach a prominent Shiite politician working at one of the mosque's inner offices. He escaped unharmed, but dozens of people were ripped apart by small pellets and ball bearings that were packed into the suicide vests.
It's the second attack on a Shiite target in as many days — on Thursday, a car bomb blew up less than a mile from one of the holiest Shiite shrines, in Najaf, south of Baghdad. The mosque hit on Friday is linked to the country's largest Shiite political party, SCIRI.
A SCIRI spokesman called it a blatant attempt by terrorists "trying to drag the people into a sectarian war." Haitham al Hosseini told CBS News, "it's not going to work." His party members spent the afternoon giving first aid, trying to help families find loved ones — and, most of all, trying to calm people down.
But every time there's an attack like this, U.S. officials say they see a spike in militia violence. Simply put, when Shiites get killed, Sunnis get blamed — and the death squads go to work.
"It just doesn't stop," one frustrated diplomat told us. He said the country is so tense that if there are one or two more major attacks like this one, neither Shiite nor Sunni leaders will be able to hold their people back.
In many Baghdad neighborhoods, Iraqis are already beginning to take security matters into their own hands — their trust in Iraqi or American forces is waning. Both Sunnis and Shiites insist their communities are being targeted by secret punishment squads, which drag people from their homes in the middle of the night, torture and kill them, and dump their bodies. So many are buying guns ... and setting up their own ad-hoc neighborhood watches.
The problem is that once there are hundreds, or thousands, of armed men in small groups that answer to no one, it doesn't take much to push them from defense to offense. That is the worst possible nightmare for Iraqis — and for Americans.
The only way to stop it, one official told us, is for the coalition and the Iraqi government to attack the militia death squads with the same force and intensity that they've been directing at the terrorists. Otherwise, militia violence will deliver just what the terrorists have been trying so hard to start: a full-blown civil war.