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Both the U.S. military and Iraq say they're still working on a promised security buildup in Baghdad. For some Iraqis, the delays may cost them their lives.

NPR's Anne Garrels reports that in one Baghdad neighborhood both Sunnis and Shiites see the arrival of U.S. troops as their last chance to survive as a mixed community.

ANNE GARRELS: The streets of Al'Alam are now deserted. Where Sunnis and Shiites, long-time friends, used to sit outside chatting or playing dominos, there is silence. It all began to change just a month ago when a militia commander loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr moved in to the area. Saleem Ahmer(ph), a translator for NPR, lives in the neighborhood.

At first, the arrival of the Mahdi commander looked surprisingly promising. Abu Sajad(ph) reassured local Sunnis there had been a change in Sadr policy. Far from attacking them, he told Sunnis he was there to protect everyone.

SALEEM AHMER: He went to the Sunni families, knocked at their doors, and passed his phone number. He told them, anything that happens while you guys are outside, you or your family members, if they're going to get captured, call this, and this is my personal cell phone number, and I will get them up.

GARRELS: Saleem is a Shiite. His best friend, Sabah Mohammed(ph), a Sunni, got confirmation Sunnis would not be attacked.

SABAH MOHAMMED: (Through translator) We spoke to the Mahdi Army leader. He told us no Sunnis will be forced from this area anymore, and you should feel safe.

AHMER: So, you know, they've been so happy. And they get back home. And they came on the street and they start telling the story. And they've been so happy that nothing happened.

GARRELS: The relief was short-lived and the promise empty. Two weeks ago, the Mahdi commander was assassinated and militiamen came to the neighborhood to exact revenge. For the first time, a roadside bomb blew up here right outside Saleem's house. It killed four women and children. The tight-knit community was in shock.

AHMER: I lost my mind, personally. And it was not just me; it was everybody in the neighborhood.

GARRELS: Then three cars arrived with young thugs dressed in black, warning the Sunnis to leave by dawn.

AHMER: The one who will stay, we will blow off their heads.

GARRELS: The police standing by did nothing. As Saleem watched from his upstairs window, he saw the militiamen beat a 15-year-old boy.

AHMER: Later, we found the kid dead behind the bakery, like 20 or 30 bullets. He was just a kid, you know? It's just a poor family that they have a small, a mini-market.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

GARRELS: Gunshots now punctuate the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

AHMER: It's weird a little bit to me, you know, because I'm a Shia and I'm telling a story against the Mahdi's militia. Everybody thought that that protect us, but they're not protecting anybody. They're just protecting their gains.

GARRELS: The militia has attacked at least five Sunni families. From his house, Saleem recorded the distant sound of women screaming in a digital camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

GARRELS: One afternoon, after Sabah had done what he could to help his fellow Sunnis, he came to check on Saleem. The cars appeared again.

AHMER: They shot him, three bullets: one in his head, one in the neck, and one in the chest. He died instantly.

GARRELS: Struggling to hold back his tears, Saleem says he could do nothing to help his friend.

AHMER: The guy get killed in front of us and none of us can do anything. We've just been sitting and watching what just happened. They just wanted to pass a message to everybody that we can do whatever we want, and Sunnis should leave, and the Shia should obey. We can kill anybody.

GARRELS: Attacks on the Sunni families still living in the neighborhood continue. Three women and two children have been killed. Saleem says Shiite families are doing what they can to provide for those hiding in their houses.

AHMER: Food get passed to them through my mother and through other old women in the neighborhood, that they go outside and buy stuff to them. You know, vegetables, food. But secretly, you know. We don't want anybody to know. And - because we are afraid from what's going to happen.

GARRELS: While the militiamen are forcing Sunnis out, they're threatening any Shiite who tries to leave, warning stay put or else. Everyone here suddenly is living in terror. For them, the new security plan is a matter of life and death.

AHMER: We want the security plan to start today or tomorrow.

GARRELS: People want the American troops to blanket their neighborhood as they promised, and they want them to do it quickly.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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