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A year that crushed friendships, spirits in Iraq

Story Highlights

• Samarra mosque attack opened the floodgates of factional fighting
• "Rashid," a Sunni, was dropped by his Shiite best friend
• He fears for his family, but works to "continue the cycle of life"
By Terence Burke
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- My friend has lived in Baghdad for the better part of his life. He's in his late 30s with a wife and three children, two of them girls.

We'll call him Rashid, because revealing his real name is too dangerous. He's a Sunni Arab, a proud man, a tough man. Under Saddam Hussein's regime he was a well-placed military official with a pleasant life.

How his life has changed.

I spoke with Rashid today, on the first anniversary of the bombing of the Golden Dome al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, Iraq. The bombing of the shrine, sacred to Shiites, is the seminal event in Iraq's spiraling sectarian conflict. It was the event that opened the floodgates for Shiite reprisal attacks against the Sunni minority in Iraq.

Rashid remembers the day clearly. The first thought that came to his mind: "Oh my God -- this is it."

In Iraq, the sectarian split has always rumbled under the surface, to some degree. But on this day one year ago, the divide ripped wide open.

Rashid recalls seeing the effects immediately. In his mixed neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, Shiite friends of his were inconsolable.

"I could just see the look in their eyes," he says. "I tried to tell them that we are all Iraqis, but I couldn't calm them down."

Rashid's best friend was Shiite, one of about 20 Shiite friends he had in his neighborhood. Rashid and his buddy would get together almost every day -- "We would share a coffee, a cigarette, a game of cards. If we couldn't meet face to face, we would always find a way to talk on the phone."

With the Samarra bombing came an end to that bond. "He stopped returning my calls and e-mails immediately. Just because I am Sunni." Rashid's friend picked up his family and left the neighborhood five days later. They still have not spoken since February 22, 2006, and will likely never speak again. Years of friendship vanished in an instant.

A year later, life in Iraq has become nearly impossible for Rashid. Every day when he wakes up, he is torn; he must earn a living for his family, but he also fears leaving them home alone. Death squads, camouflaged in Iraqi police uniforms, have been making more frequent appearances in his neighborhood.

But, he tells me, "When you have children and a wife to care for, you have to keep working and continue the cycle of life."

Rashid worries constantly, even if he can hide that pain from his face. His two girls go to the same school. Recently, a mortar landed close by, shattering the school's windows and terrifying classrooms filled with young, innocent girls.

His wife and young son stay at home, protected by a neighborhood watch that has grown from two guards to 14 armed men in the past year.

His wife sometimes tells him to stay away, afraid that the death squads will come to their neighborhood again, take him away and turn him into another of the unidentified bodies found floating in the Tigris River every morning.

Rashid is desperate to leave Iraq. He is tired of the death squad patrols, tired of the constant fear for his and his family's lives. I remember meeting him for the first time, over a year ago, and I was impressed with his toughness and strength. My admiration remains, but I now see in his eyes the pain that he has been through this past year.

"The bloodshed will continue," he says. "We are close to all-out civil war. All it will take is for something else big to happen.... And it will happen."

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People walk past the damaged al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, Iraq, this past weekend.

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