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Militias roil Baghdad streets

In Sunni areas, men organize to battle what they say are Shiite-led death squads.

By David EndersContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 20, 2006


Some call them neighborhood watches. Others call them militias. But as sectarian violence has grown over the past two months in Iraq's capital, men in Sunni neighborhoods have begun to band together.

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They have armed themselves with Kalashnikovs, heavy machine guns, and grenades, and have blocked streets with unused cars, furniture, or palm trunks, forcing would-be intruders to take a single route in and out of a neighborhood.

On Monday and Tuesday, sustained clashes between Iraqi police and Army and residents of Adhamiya, a neighborhood in north Baghdad that has long been hostile to the US occupation and the religious Shiite government that came to power in its wake, left at least 13 dead, mostly militiamen.

"This is the first of a kind," said Ministry Defense spokesman Saleh Sarhan, when asked if a local militia had battled the military like this before. "There have been attacks on police and the national guard, but not like this."

Mr. Sarhan said that some 11 militiamen had been captured "with their weapons" and were being interrogated.

For weeks, residents say, members of the local militia have been shooting at Iraqi police when they enter the neighborhood, openly equating them with Shiite militias that have carried out extrajudicial killings and have posed as police, if not being members of the police themselves. Sectarian killings have risen since the destruction of an important Shiite shrine north of Baghdad in February.

"Adhamiyans refuse to let them in," says Abu Thalat, a resident of the neighborhood.

One Iraqi journalist who lives in Adhamiya and who asked not to be identified says three of his friends were killed during the Monday firefight, which lasted for as long as 12 hours.

"The local people fought near my house with their RPGs [rocket- propelled grenade launchers] and their Kalashnikovs. There are bullet casings in my yard and my daughter is playing with them," he says. "I saw my friends killed with my own eyes."

The fighting began early Monday, when insurgents attacked a joint US-Iraqi Army checkpoint. Police and Army units responding to the neighborhood after the attack then came under fire. Battles lasted until the afternoon, when Adhamiya was sealed off by the Iraqi Army and police with backup from US troops.

Some residents reported that confusion reigned as they were caught in the multisided battle.

"I don't know who's firing on whom," said one young resident over the phone. He asked that his name not be printed due to safety concerns.

Wednesday, Adhamiya was calm. Shops were open and so were the roads as many residents went to work or school outside the area for the first time in two days. A meeting was held Tuesday between local leaders and members of the Iraqi military stationed in Adhamiya, but local leaders remained defiant about residents' right to carry arms.