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Iraq Transition

Family reeling from matriarch's brutal slaying

By Arwa Damon
CNN
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- "They killed my mother! God help me, they killed my mother!" Osama Rumani sobbed into his cell phone before handing it to his brother Ali, who was crying even harder.

At the other end of the line were relatives in Canada. As Ali spoke to them, Osama cursed the unknown killers through his tears: "May God orphan you. May you lose your mother and go through this pain. Shoot her once, shoot her twice, break her leg, her arms, but why this?"

Osama covered his face as he cried. His mother, Umm Luma, was an ordinary citizen, well-loved in the neighborhood where she was gunned down in front of her home. (Watch a family describe losing 'our leader at home' -- 2:46)

In recent months, terrorists and death squads in Iraq have increased attacks on civilians. Though the Pentagon says the sectarian violence is not tantamount to civil war, it concedes that the swelling sectarian strife has produced an upsurge in attacks, kidnappings and execution-style killings.

According to a Pentagon report, Iraqi casualties jumped 51 percent this summer, and the Baghdad coroner's office reported receiving 3,400 bodies in June and July. Ninety percent of them had been killed execution-style, the report said.

Umm Luma lost her husband to illness two years ago, after she had reared four sons and two daughters.

"She had a strong personality, she was our leader at home," said her niece, Rafal Abbas.

A bullet wrapped in a threat

But beneath Rafal's calm fašade, she is haunted not only by the murder she witnessed, but also by the fear that the killers might come back.

Before Umm Luma's death, the family says it had received two written threats in a year. Wrapped in the second was a bullet. The message was chilling.

"The time has come to bring down fair punishment on you traitors, you half men, by chopping off your rotten heads that sold religion, honor and the country to the occupation," it began.

"Where will you escape Umm Luma? Await the rage, the slaughter and the murder. Our swords are on the necks of every traitor, agent and coward."

The threat was signed by the Brigades of Death, a Sunni extremist group. Like similar organizations, it claims Iraqi Shiites are conspiring with the Americans.

But Umm Luma had no political affiliations and neither do they, her relatives said. They said they had no enemies.

The family fled nonetheless, even though no one -- least of all Umm Luma -- thought the note-writers would kill a woman. The false sense of security led Umm Luma home after a week.

'I will never forget'

On September 16, she left the house to buy bread for breakfast and a car drove up. Someone inside called her name. Her niece remembers well how the events unfolded.

"Are you Umm Luma?" asked a man in the car.

"Yes, dear. What would you like?" Umm Luma responded.

The first bullet ripped through her arm, knocking her to the ground, said Rafal. The man, who couldn't have been older than 18, then exited the car and shot Umm Luma four more times.

"It is something that I will never forget," Rafal said.

As Rafal cradled her aunt's body in her arms, another car -- similar to the attackers' -- passed before a stranger on a motorcycle pulled up and asked what happened.

"He approached her and slapped her on the cheek, asking, 'Are you Umm Luma?' " Rafal recalled.

"Yes. Leave her alone. What do you want?" Rafal shot back.

"I wanted to see if she was dead or alive," he replied before following Rafal into the house.

"I was baffled by this guy. No one in the area had seen him before. He asked weird questions, 'Where are the boys? Where do they live? Tell the boys to come,' " Rafal said. She did not respond to the stranger.

Today, family members are living with this nightmare. They feel hunted, Rafal said.

"We are living in extraordinary fear. If I am home alone, I get terrified," she said. "Yesterday, the door blew open and I fainted because I thought that they had come for us."

As his cousin explained the family's fear, Osama broke down, sobbing and shaking as he recalled tending to his slain mother that day.

"I saw my mother on the street. I picked up her brains with my own hands and wrapped it," Osama said, repeating the words, "picked up her brains."

Umm Luma dreamed of a secure Iraq, Rafal said, but now her loved ones live with the fear that they might not live to see that dream's achievement.

"We are scared of all of Iraq," Rafal said. "If we go out, we are afraid someone is going to kill us. Even at home we are afraid and we pile things against the door."

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Osama Rumani cries as he talks about the shooting death of his mother.

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