Word began to spread at daybreak in the Sunni districts south of Baghdad: A top anti-insurgent fighter and three family members were slain overnight in their village.
When the news reached the local sheik, he counted the number of men he had left. It was barely enough to fill the small mosque for the funeral.
"We are losing ground," said Sheik Mustafa Kamil Shebib, a leader of an anti-insurgent Sunni militia that was once funded by the U.S. military. "We are becoming scared again."
There is no doubt that overall violence in Iraq is just a fraction of its level several years ago. But there are hints that one of the main forces that helped turn the tide _ the Sunni tribes that joined the U.S.-backed fight _ could be increasingly fraying in critical areas near Baghdad.
It's difficult to measure the pressures on the Sunni groups, sometimes known as Awakening Councils, or Sahwa in Arabic. They have been hit by a steady barrage of revenge attacks since their uprising against insurgents about three years ago. There also is grumbling in the ranks over delayed or missing pay after the U.S. military stopped bankrolling the militias last year and turned over the accounts to Iraq's Shiite-led government.
What happened in the village of Al-Manari before dawn on Thursday is just one snapshot. It touches, however, on some potentially worrisome themes for Iraqi and U.S. authorities: the increasing boldness of the insurgent reprisals and the cries for help from Awakening leaders who are a front-line buffer for Baghdad as U.S. forces withdraw.
"We have no (Awakening) checkpoints in the area anymore," said Sheik Shebib, who leads Awakening militias in the Arab Jabour area just south of Baghdad. "Now, al-Qaida is coming back and we are feeling more and more powerless."
Few places have such a direct connection to Baghdad's security as Arab Jabour _ a collection of industrial zones, villages and palm and citrus groves in the Sunni belt around the city's southern doorstep. It's a gateway to the capital that was used by insurgents before they were crippled with a two-pronged squeeze: the U.S. troop surge in early 2007 and the Sunni militia uprising.
In an airstrike in January 2008, American warplanes dropped 40,000 pounds of bombs in just 10 minutes on an area of Arab Jabour to clear one of the last insurgent strongholds in the area.
The Awakening groups took over. Across Arab Jabour _ like many Sunni areas around Baghdad _ they became de facto security bosses and grass-roots spymasters with a steady American paycheck. They knew the U.S. funding would eventually end, but most expected the Iraqi government to pick up the tab or bring the Awakening tribes into the standing security forces.
Both plans have faltered to some extent. Awakening Council leaders such as Sheik Shebib complain that government pay has been sporadic and the Shiite-led security commanders have been slow to bring aboard the Sunni militiamen.
Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, even mentioned the struggles to pay the Sunni fighters as being among the reasons for potential security gaps as he faced an angry parliament after last week's bombings in Baghdad that killed at least 127 people.
"Al-Qaida had the upper hand, then the Sunni groups had the upper hand and now it seems the insurgents are trying to regain their strength around Baghdad," said Hadi Jallu, a political analyst in Baghdad. "This is a fight that is not finished yet."
A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Philip Smith, declined to comment on whether Awakening groups are under increased pressure. "Sahwa members have been attacked since their beginning because of their efforts to bring security to the Iraqi people," he said.
In his area of Arab Jabour, Sheik Shebib said he oversaw 2,500 Awakening fighters six months ago. Today, he claimed he has just a handful of full-time fighters left.
"It's a sign of a growing security vacuum," he said.
He lost one of his top aides sometime before dawn Thursday. Whoever killed Ali Mahmoud Dhidan _ along with his brother, cousin and elderly mother _ managed to slip silently into the village, a cluster of about 100 mud-brick homes along a canal about six miles (10 kilometers) south of central Baghdad.
The shots woke up neighbors, but not soon enough to see anyone flee the house.
At their funeral, mourners carried Dhidan's body past groves and war-shattered homes where he and other Awakening fighters fought insurgents. Dhidan was among the first to join the uprising against insurgents in late 2006. At the time, the area was known as the "Triangle of Death" for its near daily bloodshed.
He became a leading Awakening figure as violence subsided, but he refused to leave his village for bigger roles elsewhere, said Sheik Shebib.
And as the Awakening ranks dwindled, he began to stand out. The first threats were easy to dismiss: a shout or a menacing gesture from a passing car, said village residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of attack. The warnings became more direct in recent weeks: phone calls and small notes with the chilling words "you are dead."
Still, he did not post guards around his house at night. There weren't enough Awakening allies left, said Sheik Shebib.
"His house was undefended," he said. "The killers knew this and knew they could strike."
Another Awakening fighter was more lucky the following day.
About 12 suspected members of Al-Qaida in Iraq broke in the house of Wathiq Al-Jubori in the Arab Jabour area, but he wasn't home, said a police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to media.
They raiders left a message.
"They told Al-Jubori's family that they are looking for Wathiq to kill him because he fought them and forced them to flee the area two years ago," said the police official.
The imam held special prayers for Dhidan and his slain relatives that Friday in a mosque about a mile and half (three kilometers) from Sheik Shebib's house.
He didn't attend. He was too frightened to make the short trip.
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.