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

Baghdad Militants' Reign of Terror

Many of the capital’s residential neighbourhoods are in the grip of Muslim extremists.
By Zaineb Naji
It used to be a popular destination for shoppers, strollers and diners.

Dozens of boutiques, restaurants, sweetshops and bookstores line 14 Ramadhan Street in the upmarket Mansoor district of western Baghdad.

People would stay out shopping and stroll around until curfew at 11 pm, with privately owned generators keeping the street glowing during the frequent power cuts.

Not any longer, though. Two months ago, the neighborhood was seized by Muslim militants who’ve turned 14 Ramadhan and the locality in general into a ghost town.

Shops close at noon; many restaurants do not bother to open at all; no pedestrians can be seen; and cars are just as rare a sight. Even security forces abandoned the area after being targeted several times.

Other districts such as Dora, Amiriya, Ghazaliya, Jamia'a, Adil, Khadhra, Dawudi, and Yarmuk - all located on the west bank of the Tigris river - have suffered a similar fate.

The pattern is always the same. Before the militants arrive on the scene, leaflets are distributed, announcing that a strict Islamic regime is to be imposed.

Some militants are calling for an Islamic state in Iraq. Al-Qaeda commander in Iraq Abu Musa'ab al-Zarqawi, assassinated in June, said in a video posted on the internet two months before that “ we expect, God willing, that within the next three months the conditions will be right for us to declare an Islamic emirate in Iraq".

Fearful residents follow the orders issued by the militants, even seemingly arbitrary ones such as a ban on the use of generators.

The extremists justify their ban by claiming the generators are un-Islamic - but the more likely reason is that blackouts provide cover for them to plant bombs, kidnap and murder.

The fear and suspicion that’s gripped the city’s residential districts is palpable in the Dawudi neighbourhood, once home to a number of embassies, which now looks like a fortress.

Residents of the area - which has been under the control of militants since April - attempt to protect their homes with homemade barriers, built of palm tree branches, garbage cans and bags of soil.

Locals are terrified as barely a day passes without a dead body being dumped in the street. At least 30 people have been killed and 5 women kidnapped in the neighbourhood since the militants took over, say residents.

Isra Mohammed, a 30-year-old banker in Dawudi, used to wear trousers to work, but is reluctant to do so these days.

“More than one woman has been killed or threatened in our street for wearing [them]," she said.

In Amiriya, going out without a hijab, Islamic headdress, has become so dangerous that even Christian women wear one.

"A militant threatened to kill me for chatting with my neighbour unveiled," said Nawal Toma, a 40-year-old housewife. “I can't go out unveiled anymore.”

No one knows for sure whether these militants are linked to extremist groups like like al-Qaeda and advocate the setting up of an Islamic state in Iraq or if they are just criminal gangs using Islam to intimidate and control people.

Most leaflets distributed by militants in Dawudi, Kadhra, Jamia'a, and 14 Ramadhan were unsigned whereas in Amiriya some bore the signature of a group named the Islamic Army in Iraq.

Residents suspect aids of the former dictator Saddam Hussein and members of the dissolved Ba'ath party are behind the tyranny that’s taken hold of Baghdad’s suburbs.

They say the militants’ proscriptions bear a resemblance to some Ba'athist bans.

For instance, an order issued by the former Iraqi Olympic Committee headed by Saddam's elder son Udai forbade young people from wearing shorts.

"It's a psychological war, a strategy often used by the former regime to enforce its rule and to show its power,” said Abdul-Wahid Hassan, a 60-year-old retired judge from Baghdad.

Some politicians, such as Qasim Dawud, a member of parliament for the United Iraqi Alliance, believe the militants are an alliance of Ba’athists and Takfiris, foreign Islamic extremists who regard Muslims that disagree with their beliefs as heretics, and therefore legitimate targets.

"These people are trying to establish an Islamic state in Iraq. But they won’t succeed because Iraqis are too open-minded to fall for that,” said Dawud.

But despite the killing of Zarqawi and the alleged capture of many of his followers, analysts believe these radical Islamists could yet achieve their objective.

"Many of our neighbouring countries subscribe to such an agenda, and they pay money and arms to achieve it in Iraq," said Husam Mahmood, a political researcher in Baghdad.

He sees his country squeezed between two extremes, "Some neighbouring countries are trying to build a fundamentalist Islamist state [in Iraq] that conforms with Salafi thought (an extreme Sunni ideology). And on the other side of the scale, we have those who wish to establish an Islamic republic [here] similar to Iran."

Zaineb Naji is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad.

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