Baghdad: three lives under duress
In different neighborhoods, a shopkeeper, a Christian, and an imam try to carry on amid daily dangers.
BAGHDAD — Haidar Abdel Haathez knows that business at his makeshift market is good in part because of Baghdad's violence.
That's not always a good feeling, he says, his two young sons close by his side. So he does what he can to smooth the rough edges of his customers' lives.
"There is danger in the big markets now, so the people come here more," he says as he stands behind the counter in his 10-by-20-ft. bazaar of stacked cans, neatly shelved cleaning products, colorfully packaged local staples, and imported specialties with names like Heinz and Kraft. "I try to do things to help them out."
The surge that is set to put 30,000 more troops in Iraq by mid-June has led to fewer bodies turning up on Baghdad's streets from sectarian violence. But it has also spurred an adaptable insurgency to redirect attention to potential high-casualty, high-impact targets – forcing different adjustments in different neighborhoods of this sprawling city of 5 million.
In Jamiyah, Mr. Haathez's middle-class enclave at the top of an oxbow bend in the Tigris River, the new phase means residents stay closer to home.
In the mixed neighborhood of Dora, where the US military says their push has been a success, Iraqi officials were on hand recently for the reopening of a neighborhood market. But local Christians have also faced demands, of murky origin, to convert to Islam, leave, or die.
And in the historic Khadimiya district on the west bank of the Tigris, the golden dome of the Imam Kadhim shrine is a beacon to Shiite pilgrims – and a source of anxiety for US officers who remember the sectarian storm unleashed by the bombing of another Shiite holy site in Samarra last year. There, an uneasy cohabitation has settled in between sworn enemies with a common interest in keeping the shrine safe.
Not unlike inhabitants of cities around the world, many of Baghdad's residents have preferred large markets with the widest variety of products, turning to small neighborhood stalls when the sugar bowl was empty or the children pined for a treat. In Baghdad, open-air markets have been favored by housewives for the freshest produce and best biryani spices, and by middle-class families for the latest imported gadgetry.
Hopes pinned on Jamiyah grocer
But the big markets have been struck repeatedly by car bombs over recent months. That pattern has turned some markets into ghost towns as shoppers stay closer to home – and rely more on neighborhood stall-keepers like Haathez.
"It's harder all the time to get to Jemilah [a popular wholesale market in east Baghdad] – people don't want so much to leave their neighborhood," Haathez says. "And now they even bomb the bridges, making transportation less safe. So the neighbors come more to me and they ask me to please carry this and that item so they have right here what they need."
The head of household who feeds and shelters 18 members of his family – the number doubled recently when two sisters and their children were forced out of their strife-torn neighborhood – tries to remember that behind his booming business stands terrible violence.
"I give people a discount if they buy in quantities, and I let the ones having a hard time pay on credit, because things now aren't so easy," he says.
The tarp-covered mounds of products sitting out front – pallets of canned green beans, cooking oil, and Pepsi – attest to another "service" he has initiated: bringing large quantities of common goods here. That way, other neighborhood grocery vendors can supply their stalls without going out as frequently to the increasingly dangerous wholesale markets.
Tucked away as he is from any main streets, Haathez can serve his neighborhood without concern for Baghdad's 10 p.m. curfew. "Some of the big markets now close at noon," he says, "but if you need something you will find this shop open 24 hours."
The Dora area of southern Baghdad, a neighborhood of low-slung houses the same color as the khaki earth around them, was always a place where different sectarian populations, including a sizable Christian community, lived easily side-by-side.
That began changing in 2005. Most of the pressure of neighborhood cleansing fell on local Shiites, who at first lost the freedom to invite other Shiites to visit their homes, and then began to leave themselves as they faced increasingly antagonistic Sunni neighbors.
But as bad as things were for Shiites, they were even more frightening for the Christians of Dora, who make up a much smaller slice of the neighborhood.
Still, nothing prepared Peter Youash, a Christian who has hung on, for the flyers, the strange messengers, even the envelopes containing one bullet – the sign that one is targeted for death – that began showing up on the doorsteps of Dora's Christian residents. The demand: Either convert to Islam, pay $3,000 per person, leave the neighborhood – or face death.
"I felt I was back maybe in the time of World War II; it seemed this couldn't be happening in Baghdad, but it was very real," says Mr. Youash, whose name has been changed for security reasons. (Conversations with him were held by e-mail and telephone, because he said it would be unsafe for a Western journalist to visit him.)
Dora has repeatedly been "taken back" from Sunni insurgents, each time with pronouncements of success from Iraqi and US military officials. But so far, the insurgents, fortified with weapons delivered from their strongholds south of Baghdad in the "triangle of death," have always come back. US forces on patrol take sniper fire on a daily basis.
Youash says he has watched as perhaps three-fourths of Dora's Christians have fled. This month, the US Commission on Religious Freedom in Washington reported that at least half of Iraq's Christians have left the country. The Christian population reached 1.4 million in the 1980s, according to an Iraq census, and declined in the 1990s in the face of persecution. It was fewer than 1 million in 2004, before a large postwar exodus began.
The commission report says that Christians face terror tactics from Al Qaeda-associated forces as well as "marginalization and prejudice" from the Shiite-led government.
The US military says the emphasis of the surge on more neighborhood patrols is turning the tide in Dora, but Youash says he's unsure if the old days of a peaceful mixed neighborhood will ever return. He says he finds no reason to believe Iraqi authorities will help that happen.
"A few days ago, the parents of a friend filled a pickup with what they could and left Dora," he says. "They were stopped by an Iraqi Army patrol [that] insulted them. One of the insults [was] that 'you Christians are dirty and you don't deserve to live.' Then they took some of their stuff" before allowing the family to move on.
"Now," Youash, says, "they are out of Baghdad."
Imam Osama Altimimi, an elegant man with a short dark beard, white turban, and layered black and gray robes, speaks softly and smiles frequently. But he becomes adamant when he talks about the juxtaposition in Khadimiya, his ancient Baghdad district, of a Shiite shrine and US forces.
"You must understand that we cannot have the occupying forces patrolling near one of our holiest places," says Mr. Altimimi, gesturing towards the gold-domed Imam Khadim shrine down the street. "Since the old times the people have protected this holy city, and the people will protect it now."
The "people" in this case are young men associated with the mercurial cleric and anti-US political power broker Moqtada al-Sadr. Large posters of Mr. Sadr decorate the office of Altimimi, who is deputy manager of the Sadrist movement's operations in Khadimiya and imam of Friday prayers at the movement's small mosque.
Altimimi says those young men are not members of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia of Sadr loyalists. Other Iraqis, and the American military that keeps a base of operations just a few blocks from Altimimi's office, insist that Mahdi militia forces do indeed take part in the shrine's security.
But after some nasty clashes with Mahdi forces in Khadimiya last month – including a raid of Altimimi's offices – the Americans have settled into an uneasy coexistence with them here out of a larger interest in keeping the looming Imam Khadim shrine safe.
The US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, gave a hint recently as to why. In response to the US surge, he said, Al Qaeda and affiliated Sunni insurgent groups had shifted to hitting high-casualty and highly symbolic targets.
So far, he said, "none of this has triggered a reignition of the violence" and the rampage of "death squads that was a feature of the last year." But Mr. Crocker added, "I could not predict what it might mean" if "the really big one" slipped through and hit "one of these hugely symbolic targets." Among his examples he included the Imam Khadim shrine.
As a result, Sadr loyalists keep close watch over the site while American patrols keep a certain distance, nevertheless keeping an eye on comings and goings and pressing residents for intelligence.
In principle, they are to adhere to a measure passed earlier this year by parliament – where Sadrists make up the largest single bloc – calling on the US to keep its troops outside a one-kilometer radius of the shrine.
The measure is seen as largely symbolic, but it left US military commanders grumbling all the same, unhappy with the door opening even a crack to limits on their operations.
Still, the accommodation with the Mahdi presence in Khadimiya – even as the US continues to strike Mahdi-associated sites in the Baghdad district and Sadr base of Sadr City – demonstrates how a common goal can make for strange bedfellows.
At the Sadr offices, Altimimi insists there is no tacit cooperation with the Americans concerning the shrine. "There is cooperation between the people and the Iraqi Army," he says, "but not with the occupation troops. Our religion says we mustn't cooperate with the occupiers."