Driving to the Amriya district in western Baghdad in February, my friend pointed to a gap in the concrete walls with which the US occupation forces have surrounded this Sunni bastion. “We call it the Rafah Crossing,” he joked, referring to the one gate from besieged Gaza to Egypt that another occupying army occasionally allows to open. Iraqi National Police loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army had once regularly attacked Amriya, and not long ago Sunnis caught in their checkpoints, which we drove through anxiously, would have been found in the city morgue. Shiite flags these policemen had recently put up all around western Baghdad were viewed as a provocation by the residents of Amriya. When we got out of the car so Iraqi soldiers could search it, a US soldier led his dog around to sniff it, and I was patted down by one of the Sunni militiamen. Not knowing I was an American, he reassured me. “Just let the dog and the dog that is with him finish with your car and you can go,” he said, laughing.
We drove past residents forced to trudge long distances in and out of their neighborhood, past the tall concrete walls, because their cars had not been given permission to exit. Boys labored behind pushcarts, wheeling in goods for the shops that were open. One elderly woman in a black robe complained loudly that the Americans were to blame for all her problems. Amriya had been a stronghold of the Iraqi resistance since the early days of the occupation, and after Falluja was destroyed in late 2004 resistance members as well as angry displaced Sunnis poured in. Shiites were attacked even if they were former Baathists, their bodies found lying on the streets every day.
But by 2005, Shiite militias had been empowered by the Iraqi government; they began to punish Sunnis, with the help of the US military. Sunnis were pushed into the hands of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Soon more nationalist and less oppressive Sunni resistance groups clashed with extremists and rid themselves of Al Qaeda. The Americans think they have purchased Sunni loyalty by giving aid to these groups, but in fact it is the Sunnis who have bought the Americans. They describe the cooperation as a temporary cease-fire with the US occupation so that they can regroup to fight the “Iranian occupation,” which is how they refer to the Shiite-dominated government and security forces.
The Americans forced the Iraqi government to promise 20 percent of these Sunni militiamen a place in the security forces, but those from Amriya who sought to join have been harassed and abused. They do not recognize the government of Iraq and view it as their main oppressor, which is why they stopped fighting the Americans. The Iraqi government will not integrate the Sunni militiamen into its regular forces, and the Sunni militiamen will not be demobilized. At a time when militias are the main problem in Iraq, the Americans have created more and are creating other institutions–such as neighborhood and district councils–that are separate from the Iraqi state, further supporting the fragmentation of a deeply divided country.
Forty percent of Amriya’s homes have been abandoned, their owners expelled or having fled, and more than 5,000 Sunni families from elsewhere in Iraq have moved in, mostly to homes abandoned by Shiites. Of those who fled to Syria, about one-fifth returned in late 2007, after their money ran out. The Ministry of Migration, officially responsible for displaced Iraqis, has done nothing for them. The Ministry of Health, dominated by sectarian Shiites, neglected Amriya or sent expired medicines to its clinics. There is no hospital in the area, but Amriya’s Sunnis are too scared to go to hospitals outside because Shiite militias might kidnap and kill them. As elsewhere in Iraq, the government-run ration system, upon which nearly all Iraqis had relied for their survival before the US invasion, does not reach the Sunnis of Amriya often, and when it does, most items are lacking. Children have been suffering from calcium deficiency as a result. More than 2,000 children have been orphaned in Amriya in the past few years.