A portly Shiite cleric, Abu Qusai sheds his black robe for a training suit and exchanges his white turban for a baseball cap, an effort to mask his identity for a risky trip through what has become known as the "triangle of death."
The region has become a death zone for many Shiite Muslims, Westerners and members of the Iraqi security services, many of whom have become the victims of Sunni Muslim insurgents and gunmen -- some who receive bounties of several thousand dollars.
The triangle, formed by the cities of Youssifiyah to the northwest, Latifiyah to the south and Mahmoudiya to the east, holds the fastest routes from Baghdad south to the Shiite shrines in Najaf and Karbala.
French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot disappeared Aug. 20 on their way from Baghdad to Najaf. They remain missing, though their Syrian driver was found by US troops last week in Fallujah.
Two members of a Polish TV crew were killed and a third was wounded in an attack near Mahmoudiya in May. In January, two Iraqis working for CNN were shot and killed while traveling through the same area.
Bayan Jaber of the major Shiite political party said that a week ago, five Shiites traveling to Najaf from Diyala province near the Iranian border were waylaid in the triangle and shot dead. The attackers received US$15,000 from the families to return the bodies.
Jaber said insurgent leaders in the area offer cash bounties for killing certain kinds of people: US$1,000 for a Shiite, US$2,000 for a member of the Iraqi National Guard and US$3,000 for an American.
Abu Qusai, who asked that his real name not be published, goes through the triangle on trips to Najaf. He said he disguises himself to avoid the fate of two colleagues, Shiite clerics Basheer al-Jazaeri and Karim Baghdadi. They were gunned down in separate incidents while en route to Najaf for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
US Marines operate in the area, reinforced for the month by Bri-tain's Black Watch regiment. Shortly after arriving from the relatively peaceful south, the Black Watch lost three soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter in a suicide attack Nov. 4.
One day after the Black Watch attack, insurgents blew up a bridge near Latifiyah, and four buses carrying Shiite pilgrims to Karbala plunged into the Euphrates River, killing 18 people. Two days later, 12 Iraqi National Guardsmen were abducted and murdered on their way home to Najaf by militants dressed as policemen.
With US and Iraqi forces unable to stop the killings, many professional drivers are taking a 240km detour from Baghdad to Najaf. The route takes travelers well east of Latifiyah, whose name derives from the Arabic word for "decent" but which is the most dangerous point on the "triangle of death."
A taxi driver from Najaf, who gave his name only as Abu Maki, said Latifiyah residents call the insurgents the "Opel gangs" because they often use Opel cars looted from police stations to carry out their attacks.