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

Baghdadis Despair Over Security

In aftermath of recent attacks, residents say years of frustration about security situation now turning to hopelessness.
By Khalid Waleed

Baghdad has been stunned by two days of bombings that have left security officials searching for answers and residents bracing for more violence.

The ministry of health reports that at least 14 car bombs and three improvised explosive devices killed 86 people and wounded 360 others across the capital on November 2. The coordinated attacks came a day after gunmen stormed a Christian church during services, leading to a bloody siege that killed 52 people and injured 73.

The attacks have stunned citizens already living in fear of insurgent attacks and frustrated by poor public services and a grinding political impasse that has prevented a working government from taking shape, eight months after inconclusive national elections. As it stands, analysts are divided over whether the attacks will bring about an end to the political bickering or exacerbate it when parliament holds a Supreme Court-ordered session on November 8.

On the streets of Baghdad, there is no such uncertainty. In the aftermath of the attacks, residents told IWPR that years of frustration about the security situation is turning to hopelessness.

“The security situation is deteriorating and I don’t believe it will ever be solved. There is no hope that we will ever be safe,” said Abdullah al-Nawfali, head of the Christian Endowment, after the bloody standoff at Sayyidat al-Najat (Our Lady of Savation) church in Baghdad’s mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood of Karada. He added that the blow to the already dwindling Christian population in Iraq is incalculable.

“I can say that this is the beginning of the end of Christians in Iraq. I believe they will all leave now and there will be none left after thousands of years,” Nawfali said.

The caretaker government has so far blamed the attacks on foreign-backed terror groups, while rushing to reassure Iraqis that the targeting of mostly Shia-inhabited areas won’t return the country to the dark days of sectarian bloodshed which culminated in 2006 and 2007.

“Baghdad Operation Command is reviewing its plans, but the situation is under control. It is true that a tragedy has occurred but we are going to fix the problem. These bombings were supported by regional countries and because they occurred in areas inhabited mostly by a specific sect, we are examining the situation closely and carefully,” Qasim Ata, spokesman of the Baghdad Operation Command, the capital’s security oversight body, said.

Ata did not elaborate on which countries might be involved, but his claim was backed up by ministry of defence spokesman Mohammed al-Askari who pointed out that the attacks are part of al-Qaeda’s overall plan to destabilise Iraq and other countries.

“These bombings were carried out by al-Qaeda with help from elements of the Baathist Party [of Saddam Hussein], and they targeted all Iraqis not just Shia. This has been a huge blow, we must admit it, but an investigation is under way and we are chasing those behind the attacks,” said Askari, who could not confirm that the church attack and the next day’s bombings were staged by the same organisation.

According to Askari, officials’ theories that those who perpetrated the attack on the church had foreign backing came from eyewitnesses.

“The gunmen were not Iraqi. They were dressed in the uniforms of security firms and they spoke Arabic with a non-Iraqi accent [victims said]. Security forces will impose tight measures on churches on Sunday and mosques on Friday because we have information that religious sites will be possible targets,” Askari said.

Following the church atrocity, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq released a statement warning that the attack was only the beginning of violence against Christians. Those attending Sunday mass that day have described the ordeal in horrific terms.

“We were in church when we heard bombs outside so we went in the back room. Then gunmen broke in and immediately shot the priest,” Hanna Sulaiman said.

“I saw one of the gunmen start to pray [in Muslim fashion] and when he finished he shouted ‘Allah Akbar’ (God is great) and ‘Hayya ala al-jihad’ (Join the jihad) then he detonated the bomb he was wearing. The last thing I remember is that a small child was standing near him.”

Another victim of the bombing, Atheer Jasim, expressed the widespread frustration Iraqis have with the effectiveness of the security forces. Many have questioned how bomb-laden gunmen were able to penetrate into the heart of Baghdad past multiple checkpoints.

“For years we have heard that security is going to improve; but where is the improvement? I don’t believe it will ever improve,” Jasim said.

Some believe the first step to improving public safety is the formation of a functioning government. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a lawsuit presented by a civil society group that parliament was in violation of the constitution for failing to elect a speaker by the deadline mandated by the constitution, and ordered the lawmakers to reconvene.

Jason Gluck, senior rule of law adviser for the United States Institute of Peace, believes the attacks may have shaken Iraq’s political elite into forging a working coalition.

“While negotiations on the next government will remain difficult, there is a sense that action is critical and mandatory,” Gluck said.

But Joost Hiltermann, director of the Middle East programme of the International Crisis Group, questioned whether the recent violence will have an impact on the stalled government talks.

“They add to the pressure to form a government, but they will do little to break the deadlock,” he said.

As the political wrangling continues again next week, the overwhelming emotion on the streets of Baghdad remains despair.

“Security will never improve,” said restauranteur Ahmed Ali, an eyewitness to the November 2 bombings, speaking for many in the capital. “If I had enough money I would leave this country at once.”

Khalid Waleed is an IWPR-trained journalist.

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