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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 / July 12, 2006


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.

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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.

"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.