Baghdad, Feb 28: Look in the pockets of Iraqis whose jobs take them around Baghdad every day and you are likely to find a clutch of passes and identity cards, one for every police, military or militia checkpoint they may run into.
"This one is says I'm Badr, this one I show to police, and I have the American press pass and my ordinary ID. I applied for a Mehdi Army pass on Friday but it hasn't arrived yet", said one Iraqi driver working for a foreign media organisation.
"I am Sunni so these passes mean I don't get in trouble with anyone while I'm out and about". The sheer proliferation of armed groups, some official, some unofficial and some that operate in the murky middle ground underscores the lawlessness of Iraq, where neither US forces who invaded in 2003 nor the Iraqi armed forces they trained have been able to impose their authority on the whole country.
Add to that the militias, most drawn up on ethnic or religious lines, and the mix is potentially explosive as the sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war last week showed all too clearly.
Wednesday's attack on a major Shi'ite shrine prompted reprisals against Sunni mosques by gangs of armed men. The Shi'ite militias blamed by many minority Sunnis for some of the attacks have denied any role, but the bloodshed was only quelled by a three-day curfew and ban on carrying weapons in the street.
The chaos raised questions over Iraqi politicians' commitment or ability to impose central control.
"With no central apparatus that can rely on its own non-partisan security forces to stand in the way of parties and militias holding ethnic, sectarian and even separatist agendas, the most likely outcome is the gradual erosion or perhaps disintegration of the state", said a report released yesterday by the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank.
With rival political forces building up militias, US officials have struggled to create effective Iraqi national forces so Washington can pull its 136,000 troops out.
In some areas, analysts say, it is only the US military that has kept militias with their own sectarian, ethnic and political agendas from attacking each other.
The ICG report said any assessment of the consequences of a withdrawal ''should take into account the risk of an all-out war,'' although it added the question of a troop drawdown was likely to be determined by domestic US concerns.
Iraqis already pay the price of the militia proliferation.
Ali Issa's story is typical. The 30-year-old told Reuters 20 men dressed as Interior Ministry forces stormed his Baghdad office and seized him and two business partners, handing them to a kidnapping ring that demanded a ransom from their families.
A day after the attack on the Shi'ite shrine in the northern city of Samarra, an Iraqi reporter working for Reuters received a call to say black-clad gunmen had stormed his sister-in-law's housing compound in Baghdad and shot her dead.
The middle-aged woman was a Sunni from Samarra and while it is virtually impossible to ascertain who was behind the murder, her family and neighbours have blamed it on Shi'ite militiamen.
In 2004, nine militias with over 100,000 fighters agreed to disband and join the new security forces or return to civilian life.
It is not clear how far that process got, but with the Interior Ministry now run by the Shi'ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), many Sunnis complain that police, commando and counter-insurgency units are no more than bands of its Badr militia in national uniform. The Interior Ministry denies accusations it sanctions death squads targeting Sunnis but admits that gunmen wearing its uniforms are behind a spate of abductions and murders.
Badr leader Hadi al-Amery said five percent of his 20,000-strong militia formed in Iran in the early 1980s to topple Saddam Hussein from exile had been integrated into the Iraqi forces, with the rest engaged in political work.
"We say to our members who go to the armed forces that when you go to be a part of the armed forces your relationship with us will be severed", said Amery, now a member of parliament. "No one is above the law". Much of last week's chaos was blamed on gunmen dressed in black an image many Iraqis associate with the Mehdi Army, a Shi'ite militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Sadr denies the Mehdi Army, which mounted two rebellions against US forces in 2004, was involved in the attacks.
There are also several nationalist Sunni militant groups, formed after Saddam's overthrow to drive out US forces.
Sunni fighters, many of whom feel marginalised since the formation of a government led by formerly exiled Shi'ite politicians, recently formed their own militia the Anbar Revolutionaries.
Designed to oppose Shi'ite and Kurdish militias and foreign militant groups such as al Qaeda, who have carried out devastating attacks against Shi'ites, the new Sunni force is mainly made up of Saddam loyalists and Iraqi Islamists and nationalists who have been fighting US and Iraqi soldiers.
Kurds have mainly stayed out of the recent violence but they have up to 140,000 ''peshmerga'' fighters in the north even though the militia has been officially disbanded and thousands of fighters have joined Iraq's new army, mostly in Kurdistan.
US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said last week that Washington would not tolerate sectarianism or militias in the new government.
"To build a functioning democratic society you need authoritative police forces, security forces and military and militias ... are threats to a successful democratic order", Khalilzad said.