Inside Iraq's sectarian war
Some men hold paper tissues under their noses; others wrap their kuffiya ends around their mouths. It is a hot and humid day at the city’s main morgue where 20 men stand in a yard, their faces pressed with silent urgency against the bars of a window, next to a white plastic sign that baldly announces the location of “The Refrigerator’‘.
Inside sits the clerk of the morgue, his computer monitor turned towards them. Faces flash on the screen: a man with his face blackened and bruised; another man, older, maybe in his 50s, with a white beard and an orange-sized hole in his forehead; and another on a green stretcher, his arms twisted unnaturally behind him.
Occasionally the silence of Baghdad’s daily slideshow of death is broken by an appalled act of recognition, as one of the men mumbles “No god but the one God’’ or “God is great.’‘
So many bodies arrive at the morgue each day—40 is not unusual on a “quiet’’ day—that it is impossible to let relatives in to identify them. Hence the slideshow in the yard outside. The bodies are dumped in sewage plants or irrigation canals, or in the middle of the street. Many show signs of torture. Every morning a procession of pickup trucks, minibuses and cars line up with their coffins outside the concrete blast walls of the Ministry of Health to pick up their cargo. One death often courts another. Many Sunnis say the mourners are attacked en route. When they go to retrieve the body of a relative, family members often wait in the car clutching their weapons in anticipation.
The ministry is under the control of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and a large mural of his dead ayatollah father decorates the entrance to the compound. Most of the security guards in the morgue and the ministry are affiliated to his militia, the Mahdi army, one of the militias thought to be behind the sectarian killing going on in their neighbourhoods.
“Why do you want to go inside? Those inside are all terrorists, Sunni terrorists,’’ said Captain Abu Ahmad, the officer in charge of security at the morgue, when this correspondent presented a document granting permission from the Ministry of Health to visit. “If you want to see innocent victims, go to the hospitals and see the victims of Sunni terrorism on Shia civilians.’‘
After months of argument about whether Iraq is teetering on the verge of civil war, a “national unity’’ government was inaugurated on Sunday. Much has been made in London and Washington of the fact that this completes a democratic transition that began in December with the election of its Parliament. But the reality encountered during three weeks behind the barricades of Baghdad’s increasingly bloody sectarian conflict has more in common with the “ethnic cleansing’’ of the Balkans than the optimistic rhetoric to be heard on the manicured lawns of the embassy compounds and in Western capitals.
Adel is 26. He is tall and well built, with long, thick dark hair styled with gel and a thin goatee beard. With his basketball shirt and knee-length shorts, he looks more like a rapper than a vigilante commander. Four years ago, when most of his friends were reeling from the shock of the United States’s occupation, Ali stepped out of his life as a wealthy playboy from the leafy neighbourhood of Yarmouk in the west of Baghdad, and into the life of a Sunni insurgent.
“When I saw the first American patrol in my street I went to my room and cried for three days,’’ he said as we sat in his family’s living room. He emerged from his bedroom, crossed the street to a school that was used during the war as a Ba’ath party office, collected some RPG rockets, a launcher and ammunition, and drove around the neighbourhood looking for American troops. He soon found them.
“You think you are brave and you want to fight for your country and defend your home, but when I stood in front of them with the RPG on my shoulder, my legs were shaking from fear and my body went stiff.
“Now it’s much easier. I am more focused and I know it’s a split-second decision: either I kill or get killed.’‘
For months Adel fought the Americans almost every day, firing RPGs and laying improvised explosive devices. His friends mocked his enthusiasm and started calling him “The Patriot’‘.
But it has been a few months since he has taken part in any attacks against the hated occupiers. Adel the Patriot has a new mission. He commands a Sunni vigilante group, a dozen or so men armed with Kalashnikovs and a heavy-calibre machine gun, attempting, they say, to defend their area against raids and “arrests’’ made by Shia interior ministry commandos.
It was early afternoon when we met and he had just woken up. He doesn’t get much sleep these days. At midnight, just as the streets fall silent, Shia death squads roam the streets looking for prey. Adel and his group sit outside and wait. Most of the streets in Yarmouk are barricaded by bits of metal, palm tree trunks, boxes, bricks and cinder blocks. Streets are cut off to make a maze that only local people know how to negotiate.
One of Adel’s friends was snatched from his shop by men wearing Iraqi police force uniforms, he says. “They knew the area where his house is was well protected, so they went to his shop.’’ The friend’s body surfaced three days later. His nose had been mutilated, he was handcuffed and left to die in a garbage dump.
Adel says 10 Sunnis have been killed in his neighbourhood in the past month. In retaliation 20 Shia were kidnapped and killed by Sunni insurgents. During one week this correspondent spent in Yarmouk in May, a grocer, his two brothers and a cousin, a school guard, a generator operator, and four Ministry of Education employees, all Shia, were killed. Two Sunnis were killed in the same week.
“Look, a full-scale civil war will break out in the next few months. The Kurds only care about their independence. We the Sunnis will be crushed—the Shia have more fighters and they are better organised, and have more than one leadership. They are supported by the Iranians. We are lost. We don’t have leadership and no one is more responsible for our disarray than [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi, may God curse him,’’ he said.
The logic of Adel the Patriot’s new sectarian struggle against the Shia is driving him and his fellow Sunnis into radical new directions. Asked what will save the Sunnis, he replies: “Our only hope is if the Americans hit the Iranians, and by God’s will this day will come very soon, then the Americans will give a medal to anyone who kills a Shia militiaman.
“Most of my fellow mujahideen are not fighting the Americans at the moment, they are too busy killing the Shia, and this is only going to create hatred.’‘
Most of the Shia in Yarmouk and other Sunni areas have left and their young people have joined the Shia militias. So what would Adel do to stop the cycle of violence? “If I have some money I will pay regular salaries to my men, buy three black Opel cars. We will kidnap members of Badr brigade [the main Shia militia], we will kill some and get ransom on the others and the ransom money will finance more operations and I can have my own mujahideen faction.’‘
The body of a man in grimy tracksuit bottoms lies in Mu’alemeen Street, in Dora. No one tries to move it. A grocery store continues to sell vegetables across the street, and two women carrying plastic bags pass by the body, a pool of dried blood around his head, without looking. “He is a Shia, no one can move him. If anyone tries to touch the body, they will be killed. The mujahideen want him to rot in the street in front of his family and friends,’’ a local man says.
Dora used to be one of Baghdad’s most mixed neighbourhoods. Shia, Sunnis and Christians all lived together. The Christians were the first to leave after attacks on their churches. They were followed by the Shia, killed and intimidated by Sunni insurgents. Then came the Shia retaliation, raids by interior ministry commandos, Mahdi army death squads; scores of Sunni men detained only for their mutilated bodies to reappear later. Today gun battles erupt every week, between Sunnis defending their patch against the Shia militias or Shia defending their homes against the Sunni insurgents.
Abu Muhammad’s family is one of two Shia families left in his street. To survive, he has to pretend he is a Sunni. He stood in front of his house and shouted insults at the Shia government. He bought a Kalashnikov and gave it to the local mujahideen. “What can I do? I have to make sure that they don’t think that I am Shia.’‘
In Karrada, a Shia neighbourhood, a man speaks with detachment about the Shia death squads. “It’s really bad what the Shia forces are doing now, but truth has to be said: most of the Sunnis who get killed deserve it.’‘
Back in Yarmouk, not far from Adel the Patriot’s house, a group of eight-year-olds gather by a makeshift barricade, armed with plastic pistols and sunglasses. Their “commander’‘, a 12-year-old, orders them to pull a log of wood away from their make-believe checkpoint, to let a car through. But then a police pickup truck appears, its Shia occupants wearing balaclavas. The children instinctively take up firing positions with their plastic Kalashnikovs. The police pickup takes a right and disappears up a sidestreet. The kids cheer and shout.—Â