Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Baghdad on the Brink

The capital endures another upsurge in sectarian violence, which many here see as the start of civil war.
By Zaineb Naji
Baghdadis have accustomed themselves to violence and a general sense of insecurity, but even by the Iraqi capital’s tragic standards, the past week has been unusually bloody and tense.

The sound of mortar shells and explosions constantly rocked the city, and clashes between residents and militias have been reported in several neighbourhoods. Among the latest violent incidents, two Shia were killed and their bodies hung in Fadhil. In Jamia, a Sunni area, Shia militias kidnapped a bus in revenge for the killing of a Shia family that had been threatened by Sunni gunmen. And the ministry of interior was again attacked by unknown militants.

Sectarian fighting escalated last week after a series of suicide bombings in the Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City in which more than 200 people were killed.

“I lost two of my brothers in the suicide bombing,” said Jawad abdul-Hussein, a 25-year-old street vendor. “Their bodies were torn to shreds - we could hardly recognise them. It is unbearable: car bombs target us, multinational forces surround us. How long can ordinary people like me put up with this.”

Violence continued despite a three-day curfew imposed by the government in an attempt to regain control and contain sectarian fighting.

“It did not look like a curfew but an opportunity to murder Sunnis,” cried Luma Sayid, a resident of Jamia. “There was fire everywhere, and casualties lay in the streets while unknown militants raided houses.”

As mortar shells fell across the capital, mullahs in Sunni neighbourhoods urged people not to give up hope.

Luma Sayid said she was so afraid that she locked the doors of her home, kept the children away from the window, turned off the lights and peeked through the curtains to see what was going on in the streets.

She said she saw many fighters in black clothes, the typical dress of the Mahdi militia, roaming around. “ Me and my neighbours tried to keep in touch all the time via our mobile phones, so that we could warn each other of an attack on our homes. We did not sleep for three days,” she said.

In the neighbourhoods of Shurta, Khamisa and Sayidiya, Sunni and Shia families were expelled from their homes. As the city was under curfew, police helped some move from one district to another.

Rumours spread over the internet that Mahdi militiamen were set to go on a killing spree to avenge the suicide bombings in Sadr City.

Such was the climate of fear that people gathered together in each other’s homes for protection, while armed young men on street corners guarded their neighbourhoods against the militias. In the Adil, Ghazaliya and Fadhil districts, these watchmen clashed with militants, leaving casualties on both sides.

People did not even dare to leave their homes to buy bread because a number of bakeries had been targeted. Most of them closed, with a few whose owners lived nearby opening for a few hours a day.

Even when the curfew was lifted, there was little sign of life in the capital, with few vehicles on the road and the offices of public institutions deserted. In the ministries of planning and health, only a quarter of the workforce turned up for work.

“I didn’t allow my kids to go to school and I didn’t go to work after the curfew because I was still worried about the violence,” said May Masood, a 30-year-old Shia civil servant.

Schools remain closed in the Mansoor, Dawoodi, Jamia, Adil, Kadhra, Amiriya and Adhamiya districts. Few students and professors showed up at the universities, and those that do only stay for a few hours.

The bloody chain of events unfolded after a series of press releases by Sunni groups in the government and the parliament who threatened a boycott if not given more power. Not to grant the Sunnis more might lead to a civil war, they warned.

Harith al-Dhari, the head of the Association of Muslim scholars, an umbrella group for Sunni clerics, even went as far as saying that he supports the insurgency and accused Prime Minister Maliki of marginalising Sunnis in the political process.

The releases poured oil on the fire, provoking violent responses from both Sunni and Shia militias. The break down in law and order was disturbingly illustrated by the kidnapping of an unknown number of civil servants from an office of Sunni-controlled higher education ministry and the subsequent targeting of the Sadr bloc-run ministry of health was targeted.

The cycle of violence culminated in five suicide-bombing attacks in Sadr City, the most deadly single incident since the overthrow of the regime in April 2003.

The bloody events of the past week have further undermined public confidence in the current government, with many Baghdadis believing that they are witnessing the start of a civil war.

“The Iraqi government is incapable of putting a stop to the bloodshed,” said Iba Mohammed, 35, a teacher, who urged the cabinet to step down to make way for others more capable of dealing with the situation.

Maliki blamed his own government for the new outbreak of violence, saying it was a reflection of divisions among ministers. He described the current state of affairs as a major political crisis which only politicians could put a stop to.

Some politicians believe that extremists are deliberately stoking up tensions because they want to show that the authorities are unable to provide security.

Ridha Jawad Taqi, a Shia parliamentary deputy, said, “Takfiris (Islamic radicals) and Saddamists are escalating the violence to show that the ministries of the interior and defense are incapable and the cabinet should step down.”

Amid all the gloom, some deputies say there are signs of optimism. Shadha al-Abusi, a Sunni lawmaker, believes that efforts are being made by politicians to present a more unified stand and demonstrate full support for the current government.

“The current policy has proved that we all are losers,” he said.

Zainab Naji is an IWPR reporter in Baghdad.