Revenge cycle fragments Iraqi capital

Sectarian murders this week test Iraqi prime minister's promise to stabilize Baghdad.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the month since a new security plan was unveiled in the capital involving 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and police, sectarian murders and tit-for-tat mosque bombings by Shiite and Sunni militias have surged.

A visit to Baghdad's Yarmuk Hospital reveals how far the capital has been thrust into civil war. In a 30-minute period Tuesday, the stream of tragedy through its doors included both Shiite and Sunni victims of rival killing squads, civilians and soldiers gunned down at work, and a fiercely angry boy who had just lost both parents.

There is still hope that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be able to stem the tide by getting the Army and police to act as peacekeepers between warring Muslim sects. But it appears that his political honeymoon, in Baghdad at least, may be over.

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"We have Iraqis killing Iraqis every day and the police do nothing,'' says Imad al-Zekki, waiting at the hospital to collect his murdered cousin's body for burial. "Where is Maliki? Is this what his security plan is all about?"

Serial atrocities against Shiites and Sunnis in recent days, all in close proximity to police stations and US and Iraqi Army installations, are undermining confidence in Mr. Maliki's vows to restore stability quickly to Baghdad.

"The country is sliding fast toward civil war," said Dawa parliamentarian Ali Adib during a contentious parliament session Tuesday in which the prime minister was attacked by members of his own Dawa Party for the sharp decline in basic security.

The massacres – like the two-hour spree of a Shiite gang who roved over the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Jihad Sunday, killing about 50 Sunnis in a reprisal attack for the bombing of a Shiite prayer room Saturday evening – are now clearly being carried out by Iraqis, not the "outside forces" that so many here prefer to blame. Fitnah, a catch-all Arabic word for civil war and sectarian discord, is now on many Iraqis' lips.

Police and Iraqi Army checkpoints have been more visible on Baghdad's major roads, but security forces have yet to patrol deeply into troubled neighborhoods, drawing complaints from both Shiite and Sunni politicians. They say that security forces are aiding the "other" side. US officials here admit that infiltration of the security forces by both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias remains a major problem.

Sectarian divide widens

While there are no precise measures for sectarian hatred, the subjective evidence points to communal trust being at its lowest ebb since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in 2003. The bitterness of three years of political competition and occupation has made the city ripe for the spread of sectarian militias, leading to countless murders and personal tragedies.

The destruction of the Shiite Askariya Shrine by Sunni insurgents last February, and the attacks on dozens of Sunni mosques by Shiite Mahdi Army militiamen afterward, further widened divisions and fed the current cycle of gruesome revenge attacks.

In recent weeks, sectarian tension has risen to new heights. Baghdad's Yarmuk Hospital provides the grimmest of evidence of that.

Tuesday evening, Iraqi soldiers roared up and carried a wounded comrade inside, shot in the leg in a firefight with Sunni insurgents in Dora; then Iraqi police commandoes arrived, bearing the wounded and the dead from a suicide car bomb on Karada Meriam street, a block from the protected Green Zone; then wailing was heard inside as an extended Shiite family learned their relative had died on the operating table. Two sedans pulled up with three Sunni victims of a shooting in Mansour – two dead men and a middle-aged woman, breathing but in shock.

Hamid Khadim, a nurse, shrugs when asked how he copes with the daily toll. "You get used to it – today is about average for the past month,'' he says. "It's been like this since the new government was formed."

Massacre in Jihad

Sunday's massacre in Jihad – three miles from the airport and the US military's sprawling Camp Victory – shows how Baghdad's seemingly random violence is spreading hatred and institutionalizing atrocity.

Tensions in the area – which is mostly Sunni but, unusually for suburbs west of the Tigris, still has many Shiites – have been running high all year. Until recently, the violence had been confined to assassinations of Shiite residents in ones and twos, notes slipped under doors warning Shiite residents to move or else, and roadside bombs.

But, recently, Shiite residents have been getting organized into their own militias, with the help of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, according to two residents of the area – one a Shiite, the other Sunni. Since the Askariya shrine bombing on Feb. 22, locals deemed to be salafiyah – a rigid Sunni ideology that has much in common with the Wahabbism of Saudi Arabia – have been taken away at night and murdered, though not as often as Shiite residents, they say.

After a recent string of explosions at Shiite mosques and Hosseiniya (Shiite prayer halls) to the west of the river, local Shiites have reportedly mounted their own intimidation campaign, with notes slipped under doors and murmured promises of revenge for future attacks.

Fleeing to safety

On Saturday night, a bomb planted at the garage of the Zahra Hosseiniya, founded after the fall of the regime in a building confiscated from Mr. Hussein's Baath Party, killed eight worshippers leaving evening prayers.

By 9 o'clock the next morning, revenge attacks were in full flow. One Shiite man, called by his brother to take two nieces and a nephew to a safer area, recalled the harrowing trip. After passing an armory for the national in a compound once used to train Hussein's domestic spy agency, he turned onto National Security Street, which marks the area's eastern edge, and found militias in control.

A mile to the north, gunmen were manning a road block. Another gang stood watch a half-mile to the south. He darted into a residential street between their checkpoints, passed three bodies, and arrived at his brother's house.

After talking with a Sunni neighbor who also wanted to move his children to a safer place, his brother loaned him a second car and they began to make their way from the neighborhood – past more bodies, with the witness ordering his young relatives to duck their heads beneath the seats, but too late to stop their tears.

In front of the Zahra Hosseiniya – half a mile from Jihad's main police station – he saw gunmen roughly hauling blindfolded men – presumably Sunnis – into a waiting minibus. He called the police emergency line on his cellphone, but there was no answer.

Finally back at the small side road he'd used to get into the neighborhood, the way out had been blocked with tires and concrete. He ordered his 12-year-old nephew, Haider, to hop out, "quick as you can," and remove the obstacles. The gunmen took little notice, and they sped off.

"After about five minutes, we came to a police commando checkpoint. I told them, 'I'm a Shiite, but people are being slaughtered over there, do something,' " he says.

"But they looked at me like I was crazy. 'If we go over there, they'll just run away. Why bother,' one of them said. I was there for over an hour – shooting was almost nonstop – and I didn't see a single police, Iraqi Army, or US Army patrol."

Hoping for justice

Back at Yarmuk Hospital, bad news unleashed a cacophony of grief for Haider Abdel Satah and his family.

The 13-year-old's father had just died in the operating room, joining his mother and 10 other relatives killed about an hour earlier. Haider said gunmen in uniforms opened fire on the minibus carrying the family and a dead relative – killed in a terrorist attack the day before – to the holy city of Najaf for a funeral.

The attack happened on Mechanic's Bridge in Dora, a Sunni stronghold on Baghdad's southern edge. Insurgents and Iraqi soldiers have been holding prolonged firefights there all week.

The bare-chested boy, his right bicep bandaged where a bullet fragment was extracted, stormed out of the emergency room when a group of Iraqi soldiers arrived with a wounded comrade. His grief became anger.

"You killers and cowards,'' he shouted, an aunt trying to shush him. "You murdered my whole family!"

Haider insisted that the army opened fire on the minibus, though an AP report Tuesday quoted Police Lt. Thaer Mahmoud as saying 10 members of the family were killed by unknown gunmen.

Surrounded by extended family members, Haider was almost chillingly lucid, perhaps a byproduct of his childhood on Baghdad's Haifa street, where hundreds have been killed since the start of the war. He said the family was attacked with an RPK, a heavier variant of Ak-47 that fires 10 rounds per second.

"I've seen the bodies of the wahabbi victims, I've seen the drill holes in their foreheads, but I've never seen as many bodies as I have of my family," he said. "The car came to a halt and they just kept shooting. I was reaching for my Dad's mobile when I got hit."

"I want justice but I know I'm not going to get it."

Awad al-Taiee in Baghdad contributed reporting for this article.

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