Militias roil Baghdad streets

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

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

Sheikh Omar al-Jumaily, the director of the human rights office of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab party, defended the right of the residents to take up arms, pointing to a message from the Ministry of Defense last month urging residents not to cooperate with Iraqi security forces unless they were accompanied by US troops.

"The Ministry of Defense requests that civilians do not comply with the orders of the Army or police on nightly patrols unless they are accompanied by coalition forces working in that area," the announcement said.

"People should not cooperate with them," Mr. Jumaily said of the police, adding that mosque loudspeakers in the neighborhood had broadcast messages urging residents to cooperate against the "intruders."

Men in other neighborhoods have said the same, even claiming that US troops have repeated the message.

At a recent press conference, US military spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said that infiltration of the police by Shiite militias was a problem the US military was working to solve by placing an increased number of US troops with Iraqi police units, as the military has done with the Iraqi Army.

"There is that concern on the part of some Iraqis that if you don't have American forces, these forces are going to do the wrong thing," Lynch said. "There are indeed some displaced loyalties. We're going to work through that in the course of the next year, increasing our police transition teams, putting US soldiers with local police stations, district police stations, increasing our number of police trainers focusing on that issue."

Lynch said he had no knowledge of the Ministry of Defense's statement or of US troops reinforcing that message.

On Monday and Tuesday, fighting ended only when US troops entered the neighborhood, a twist for a neighborhood where it used to be the US presence that sparked battles.

Prominent Sunni political leader Adnan al-Dulaimi on Wednesday urged US troops to protect Sunnis from Shiite militias both inside and outside the government. "This is the responsibility of the coalition forces," Mr. Dulaimi says. "Every day, there are people being killed. Their bodies are thrown in streets and in dumpsters. They are found with their hands tied behind their backs and they have been shot in the head or hung."

But Shiites cite continued bombings and the evictions of Shiite families from villages and cities around Baghdad as reasons to keep their militias armed and organized.

A common slogan scrawled on walls in Adhamiya is "death to the Badr Brigade," the militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the religious Shiite party that is blamed by many Sunnis for the killings. As negotiations to form Iraq's new government continue, SCIRI seems less likely than ever to give up its control of the Ministry of Interior and its special police forces, the same ones that Adhamiyans say they were protecting themselves against.

Residents of Adhamiya don't see their militias disbanding anytime soon. "The people of Adhamiya don't trust the government," Rashid says. "They don't trust anyone."

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