Iraq: A divided nation tears itself apart once again

On the night of April 24 in the Iraqi town of Buhriz, spring has sprung. In the garden of a retired security officer a group of men, sitting around a plastic table in the middle of a lush garden, are debating matters of horticulture.

“The garden had three lemon trees before he came to the house,” says one of the guests, a balding man with a mischievous grin. “He cut them down and replaced them with roses; look, so many roses.”

The mood is relaxed and the ex-security officer, once a feared man, smiles with satisfaction. These days he spends most of his time in the garden, tending to his shrubs and roses. In the distance a helicopter draws wide circles in the pale blue sky, and the occasional remote explosion filters through the chatter and the shrieks of the children playing football in the street.

“What are they shooting at?” says the gardener. “Leave us in peace.”

“They fire a few rounds and claim they have killed terrorists,” says his nephew, a car mechanic whose father was killed in the last bout of Iraq’s civil war in 2006-2008. “They are just shooting at the palm groves and destroying the trees.”

The helicopter does one more circle and vanishes behind palm treetops, firing a salvo of rockets into the groves. “The people have just started rebuilding the groves. How many trees will be destroyed?” asks the retired officer.

It’s a good question. These trees, these people, this town of 40 000 people north of Baghdad have suffered the bitter exigencies of every phase of Iraq’s decade-long misery. To understand Buhriz today is to understand Iraq today, a nation that nominally went to the polls in its third post-Saddam parliamentary election on Wednesday, but a nation once again tearing itself apart.

A Sunni town surrounded by Shia villages, the people here have by turns fought against everyone including themselves: the Americans from 2003, the Shia during the sectarian war, al-Qaeda when it moved into the vacuum, the Shia government led by Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which treats them as second-class citizens, and now against the new insurgents wreaking havoc across both Syria and Iraq.

Anger and hatred have never really dissipated, and even during quieter times a separation more tangible than any concrete wall persists.

Now, understandably, the people have had enough. “It’s become about killing only,” says a commando officer in his mid-20s, who once fought the Americans, but gave up to raise a family and join the police. “Fighting had no meaning any more, and even the resistance groups we formed just became a new mafia.”

The men repair indoors. For now, they can relax. But the war has never truly stopped in Buhriz.

April 25

The policeman is a rough man, compact and sturdy, and prefers to wrap a simple scarf on his head like he used to do when he worked on his father’s palm grove.

He is not of the new generation of Iraqi security men, confident and proud in displaying the gadgets they inherited from the Americans: goggles, kneepads and backpacks. And he is old-fashioned in his interrogation techniques, preferring his fists to the wide array of torture methods deployed by the Iraqi security services.

People hate him, fear him and need him in equal measure. He is a skilful navigator of the new Iraq, a Sunni negotiating the violent Shia power structures that underpin the state. “I don’t fear the confrontation, the people love me,” he says with his AK-47 resting between his knees. “But when the gunmen threaten you with your family it’s hard, your family is your worst weak point. If they come to me face to face it’s okay.”

If the policeman has the most dangerous job in Buhriz, then the palm groves are the most dangerous place. Between the town and the Diyala river lie long stretches of marginal reclaimed land. In the good times the leafy scrubland is great for barbecues or alfresco drinking. In the bad times – and there have been many bad times – it is the perfect hiding place for insurgents, deserters, al-Qaeda and outlaws. During the civil war the groves were the place for disposing of kidnapped men, hundreds of whom were lined up on the river banks and shot.

On this Friday the policeman and his commander were combing the groves for insurgents, along with soldiers from the interior ministry Swat force. There is a terribly uneasy irony at play here – local Sunni policemen heavily reliant on Shia government units for security backup, men they may well have fought against in the past.

The patrol quickly turned into an ambush. “We were besieged, just 12 of us,” says the policeman. “The gunmen fired at us using snipers and heavy machine guns.

“We went deeper and entered a grove that was more like a swamp. The local police withdrew. We wanted to leave too, but the Swat team refused to let us leave. They told us more of their men were inside. I called my officer and shouted at him. I said: ‘What have you dragged me into?’. I was wearing my flak jacket, carrying an AK and a machine gun, and carried the bullets. [By that time] I had fired 700 bullets in the machine gun and now it jammed every two bullets.” Four of the Swat team were killed.

That night the Sunni of Buhriz started receiving calls from friends in neighbouring villages telling them that Shia militiamen were mobilising. Many people started sending their families away.

Shortly before the shooting broke out, the car mechanic and the balding man were reminiscing about the good old days.

They crossed one of the canals that dissect Buhriz. “We ambushed the Americans here once,” says the balding man. “We would drink all day and when we heard that the Americans were coming, we would leave the bottles, fight and return to drinking. We fought without leadership and without training. We thought fighting the Americans was a jihad, whatever your beliefs were.

“Life was simple, fighting the Americans was joy. My mother would give me and my brothers our kit and guns. I didn’t know where she hid them after we finished. She would fetch them and stay waiting for us until we came. She was a simple woman who thought fighting a foreign occupation was an honourable thing.”

These days things are not so simple. The two men stop at street corners and ask about the road ahead for fear of arbitrary detention by the army. Some families are fleeing town after their young menfolk were detained the night before. Each son will cost $10 000, maybe $20 000 dollars, to release, depending on the wealth of the family.

“They want to impoverish the Sunnis,” mutters the mechanic.

April 26

The market opened as usual. The government was threatening to bulldoze the groves but the fighting had stopped and the Swat and police units withdrew after the casualties of the night before.

In the city hall in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, a few miles away, the general in charge of the operations summoned tribal elders and the heads of local councils and demanded that they hand over the insurgents hiding in their groves. He told them that he would not sacrifice any more of his men for the town. Next time it would be aerial bombardment.

After his ordeal in the groves the policeman is given half a day’s rest, but goes back to his checkpoint in the afternoon. The car mechanic was in the Abu al-Ghaith mosque. Then all hell broke loose. “I thought the Swat was raiding the town,” he says.

The policeman had entered the blue concrete room of his checkpoint and heard the bullets. He put his head out, forgetting to don his helmet. “I was shocked, to tell the truth,” he says. “I hadn”t seen anything like it before, suddenly they had us surrounded. I pushed the gun out of the room and just fired, seeing nothing, pointing at no one, but just shot. ‘I will die,” I thought. I jumped out of the room, and hid behind the blast wall.”

In the concrete tower another policeman opened fire with his machine gun and pinned down the attacker. Another policeman on the other side of the road opened fire too, but was shot in the leg and screamed for help.

The gunmen skirted around the market and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the tower, killing the machine gunner. “The injured policeman was screaming, calling for help, but how can I cross the street? They surrounded him and shot him, may Allah be merciful upon him,” says the policeman.

“Someone shouted at me from the other side of the river that they were coming my way so I jumped into the canal and swam. It was getting dark now, and I hid in a house and started calling my commanders.” It wasn’t until the following morning that he was rescued by a friend.

The car mechanic and other people in the mosque had barricaded themselves inside, anticipating an attack.

“I shouted at the people to end the prayers, end it, and people clambered at the doors but everyone was afraid to leave. We thought those would be the Swat teams coming to detain the whole town,” the mechanic says.

“From a small window we saw they were not police but gunmen, some in khakis, others in civilian clothing, sharwals [loose-fitting trousers] and tracksuits. We said those would be Shia militias but after a while no one shot at the mosque and nothing happened, so we opened the door and negotiated with the gunmen. They demanded that we say ‘Allahu Akbar’. We all fled. They were shouting ‘Allahu Akbar, we came to save you from the apostate government.'”

Families were already leaving. Some on foot walking along the canals. People abandoned their shops and fled. At 8pm the gunmen took the mosques and announced the liberation of the town, calling on the people to come back and close their shops. Few did.

Abu Hayder is a Shia resident of Buhriz, who lives far from the town centre. He gathered his four children and wife and ran when he heard the gunmen had taken over the town. “I am a Shia and my son’s name is Hayder. I will be killed.”

He had fled the town when it was overtaken by insurgents a few years ago and only returned last year. History was repeating itself.

April 27

The commando officer from the garden party spent all night repelling attacks from gunmen. He was running out of bullets and his checkpoint was about to fall when Swat units supported by Shia militiamen turned up. “We came to support you,” said the Shia to the Sunni.

Government troops attacked from two fronts. By mid-afternoon the gunmen had withdrawn as fast as they came.

The policeman, along with other local police units, was barred from the town that morning, and only allowed in by the late afternoon. “They locked us in the base,” he says. “We went back in after Swat had reclaimed the city. Swat were there. The killing happened in [the] late afternoon. We started to clear the bodies.”

“These are new boots,” he says, lifting his feet, “but I want to change them from the smell of blood.”

Now it was the turn of the Sunni to flee town. The retired security officer, the car mechanic and his balding friend all fled when they heard of the killings in town. Some did not have time to put on shoes and ran barefoot. For hours they hid in the fields, anticipating Shia attacks, leaving their women alone.

But the killing had stopped by the afternoon. Almost.

April 28

The police announced that the town was safe and free from gunmen, and a neighbourhood chief, Mahdi Saleh, and his family decided to return home along with other people who had fled the town.

They entered the town in two cars. The young men went ahead into the market to see if it was safe for the family to follow.

“I waited at a distance,” the chief says. “I called them but no one answered. I waited and then I saw someone running and they said they shot some young men in the street.”

By the time he arrived he found the car empty, with pools of blood inside.

The policeman had arrived a few minutes earlier with his unit. He says there were four bodies. Some had been shot in the head, some in the face. A Swat team of 12 men were manning a nearby checkpoint.

“If you say anything, Swat can kill you and say you were a collaborator,” says the policeman. “They were shot in the head and their blood was hot. We piled them in my pick-up and ferried them to the hospital. One of them was alive. But he soon died in the hospital.

“Why were they killed a day after the killing had stopped in the town?” I ask.

“When Swat see men sitting in the car, they say: ‘Those are Da’ish [from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria], bring them here.” They are executed and no one asks any questions. All the people who were killed were labelled terrorists.

“The father arrived at the hospital. He was shouting and cursing. He swore at my mother and sisters, told me I am filth, but my commanders told me to let him alone, he was mad,” says the policeman.

“He shouted: ‘Where is my fifth boy, where is my fifth?” He said he had called him. No one knew what he was talking about.”

Two days later, as more families returned to their homes, one family noticed a trail of blood that led under one of the beds. There they found the body of the fifth son.

On the walls into town, graffiti is political. “Did you know that God is with Maliki”, one person has written. “Long live Maliki,” is scribbled elsewhere.

I met the car mechanic again. At the end of the weekend he was restless. Now he is calmer, and if anything has a sudden sense of purpose.

“We won”t let anyone come, not the army, not the police, not the insurgents,” he says. “At night we formed a network of informers who sit and watch all night. We stash guns nearby and watch. A few old army officers have joined us, and the local police have given their allegiance and promised to give weapons if battles start up again.”

“All groups have to abide by the ruling from the military leadership. We don’t want anyone to be killed for nothing.”

From this conversation, it is not hard to see how a man who so mistrusts government forces might turn to the insurgents such as Isis (the Islamic State of Iraq).

“Now, our enemy is the same,” the mechanic says simply.

The policeman, who had refused to leave his base for days, worried about the anger of the town. I met him with his friend who had rescued him after he swam for his life across the canal.

“To be honest with you I am thinking of joining the Shia militias,” says the Sunni policeman. “The government can”t protect us, my life here in this shit town is threatened. I will either be killed here or will have to join them. If it wasn”t for the militias this town would be under control of gunmen.”

As we leave his friend turns to me and says: “I tell you if he joins the Shia, I, who saved him, will kill him myself.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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