While security forces in Baghdad focus on stopping the advance of Islamic State militants, residents of the capital are falling victim to an increase in opportunistic crime which is threatening the fragile bonds that have held neighborhoods together.
The rising crime, violence, and sectarian tensions are driving families to leave their homes or the country if they can. In an increasing number of areas, Shiite militia members and not police rule the streets.
Nasrin al-Alaf and her daughter were sitting in the kitchen of their home recently in the middle-class neighborhood of Gazaliyah, where high walls front comfortable two-story homes with carefully-tended gardens, when five men armed with pistols and screwdrivers and wearing medical gloves walked in.
“I was so shocked I couldn’t move – I felt like my heart stopped beating,” says Ms. Alaf, a professor of entomology in Baghdad. “Their faces were covered with scarves. One of them said ‘don’t make any noise or we will kill you. Give us your money and your gold.’ ”
The leader of the gang put a gun to her daughter’s head, and led her upstairs where she handed over all of their cash and jewelry. “It was all my wedding jewelry,” says Alaf, a widow. “There was jewelry my mother gave me.”
Worst of all, she says, the thieves said they knew her.
As the Islamic State group started taking over large parts of Iraq, the country’s most revered Shiite religious leaders issued a call for their followers to join Iraqi security forces in protecting their shrines and cities.
On the outskirts of the city, militias have set up checkpoints to reinforce the Iraqi army and federal police. Masked young men dressed in black and carrying AK-47s stop and search vehicles. During the summer they moved into schools in many Baghdad neighborhoods to train volunteers.
Many Iraqis worry they have over-stepped their mandate – moving beyond preventing the IS from taking root to acting as a de-facto police force effectively operating outside the bounds of law. Some say they worry about a return to the days of Iraq's civil war with battles in the streets and militias running death squads.
While officials acknowledge that it will not be as easy to deactivate the militias as it was to activate them, some say there was no other option.
“Sometimes you have no choice – you have an enemy and they were talking about destroying Baghdad,” says Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command. “What can you do? You must protect Baghdad – this was the choice.”
There are no reliable statistics on crime, but anecdotal evidence indicates a rise in armed robberies, car thefts, and kidnappings. Brigadier General Maan says police and intelligence forces are making progress in fighting organized crime, recently cracking 35 gangs that were operating kidnapping rings in Baghdad.
Some of the gangs are believed to have links to the Islamic State group. Others are ordinary criminals taking advantage of the security vacuum.
“This is a dismembered society,” says Saad Eskander, a political scientist. “America did not dismember it, it was already dismembered and held together by force by Saddam Hussein.”
In the last 11 years, Iraq has gone from a totalitarian regime built on a system of informants and mutual suspicion to a country plunged into war. Ethnic, religious, and social divisions have deepened as regions, tribes, and even families have fragmented under the strain of a country tearing itself apart.
In Baghdad in particular, Sunni Muslim Iraqis are continuing to leave neighborhoods they have lived in for decades as Shiite militias put down roots.
Alaf says she didn’t recognize the men who robbed her but believes they live in the same neighborhood. “They said, ‘We know you.’ When the police came, they took photographs of the crime scene and later asked for money to ‘develop the photos.’ ”
Like most Iraqis, Alaf kept her money at home rather than in a bank. She says the thieves took almost $50,000 in cash and jewelry. They even took her paycheck and the last 25,000 dinar note – about $20 – from the wallet of her daughter, a medical student.
“I worked hard for my money,” says Alaf, who taught in Libya to support her family after her husband died. “It was my life’s savings.… It broke my heart. I feel like someone died,” she says.
After gathering the money, gold, and their cell phones, the thieves locked Alaf and her daughter and granddaughter in a bathroom. Neighbors alerted by another daughter, who was worried when her mother didn’t answer, broke the door down three hours later.
Her granddaughter, Miriam, seemed unfazed by the robbery. Alaf, though, says after living in the house for 16 years, she jumps at every noise.
When the police failed to turn up any leads, Alaf did what many Iraqis do: She consulted a fortune-teller.
She says the woman, who reads the past and future in patterns of salt, told her exactly what had happened and where the men were living.
“She said they live a few streets away. I asked her to tell me their names but she refused,” says Alaf. “She said 'I don’t want to get involved.'”