Letter From Baghdad: The Growing Sectarian Divide

Letter From Baghdad: The Growing Sectarian Divide

Letter From Baghdad: The Growing Sectarian Divide

Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army now confronts both the US Army and the Sunni insurgents.



The Imam Al-Ridha neighborhood in north Baghdad is one of the city’s newest. Its houses have been hastily constructed of cinderblocks, and the streets are unpaved. There are fifty-five families here already, and more are on the way. At the entrance to the neighborhood a photo-mural depicts recent Shiite tragedies: the death of more than 1,000 people during a pilgrimage in 2005, the burial of martyrs during uprisings against the US military in 2004 and the end of the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein, with his military occupying a holy shrine.

The neighborhood itself is a testament to an event that is not depicted: All the families here have left their homes in other parts of central Iraq, fleeing escalating sectarian violence. “One of my neighbors, a Sunni, came to me and said, ‘I advise you to leave this area,'” says Abu Ali, who left his home of fifteen years in Taji, about forty-five minutes north of the capital, for Imam Al-Ridha two months ago, after his brother was abducted.

The problems in Taji, a mixed city with a Sunni majority, began shortly after the US invasion. “We thought the American soldiers came here to protect us,” Abu Ali says. “So when someone would plant a bomb or try to attack them, we would tell the Americans.” Providing aid to the occupier quickly led to retribution from the Sunni resistance. But the violence has escalated since December’s elections, and again following the destruction of the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra in February. In the past two months tens of thousands have fled.

The mural at the entrance to Imam Al-Ridha also includes a picture of Muqtada al-Sadr. The neighborhood, and many others like it, is adjacent to tightly packed Sadr City, which is home to millions and comprises the cleric’s power base. “The only people who help us are the Mahdi Army,” says Naim Hussein, referring to the loosely organized militia that is loyal to Sadr and in the past two years has engaged in actions ranging from battling the US military to cleaning up garbage. “They bring us gas, water and food. We don’t have any money, we don’t have any jobs. We were farmers.”

Bordering Sadr City to the west is Shoala, another poor Shiite neighborhood that is nearly as large. In 2004 Sunni families fleeing the US military’s siege of Falluja came east to Shoala, where they received assistance from Sadrist mosques. Now the refugee tide has changed, and the 2004 cooperation between Sunni guerrillas and the Mahdi Army against the United States appears to have fully disintegrated. Since the Askariya bombing, the Sadr office in Shoala has registered more than 700 Shiite families seeking assistance, most of them in early April. The other major Sadr office, in Sadr City, has seen similar numbers.

In Chikook, another collection of cinderblock houses, this one on Shoala’s south border, families drive up in the pouring rain, all their belongings loaded into trucks and minivans. Some are staying in their cars until houses can be built, others are crowded into the dwellings of families that have been here longer. The people in Chikook say the Sadr office pointed them toward vacant lots and that the Mahdi Army provides protection for those who have recently settled here.

Most of the families in Chikook are from Haswa, a Shiite village near Abu Ghraib, southwest of Baghdad. The men say there was a progression: First they became afraid to go to work; eventually, they decided it was time to leave. “A hundred families have left in the last two days,” says Abu Muhammad. “A hundred, maybe 200 more, are coming in the next week.”

Everyone I speak with seems to have left after losing a family member or a neighbor. The form in the Sadr office actually includes–along with lines for names, place of former residence and other vital data–a line that reads: “______ was killed.” Abu Hakki, who arrived with Abu Muhammad, says he left after witnessing people getting shot in the car in front of him while on the road between Abu Ghraib and Baghdad. “They stopped the car and took five men out of it and killed them and injured five because they are Shiites and because they worked for a government company,” he says.

The predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Ghazalia is next door, across one of the many front lines in what appears to be a widening civil war. Many Shiites blame the United States for fanning sectarian flames. At the March 31 Friday prayers in Sadr City, worshipers chanted, “No, no to America!” Muhammad al-Attab al-Tabaee, a Sadr aide, reiterated the cleric’s call to his followers to “ignore US provocations,” adding, “the United States makes sectarianism.” After the April 7 bombing of the Shiite mosque in Baratha, which killed at least seventy-one, Muqtada al-Sadr blamed America for the troubles besetting Iraq. Some Shiites go so far as to claim that the mosque bombings are part of a US destabilization campaign.

Back in Abu Ali’s sparse living room, the conversation turns to politics. “During the first election [in January 2005], the Shiites were the only people who came to vote,” says Shaheed Hussein Kassim, who lost his sons and his brother to Sunni insurgents. “Why does America hate Shiites?” As further proof of what they see as American enmity, the men offer recent statements by US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who was critical of both Sadr and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the interim prime minister whom Sadr’s political party supports for permanent appointment. (In the December elections, the broad Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, won a plurality in the polling and thus the right to select the prime minister. After intense negotiations within the bloc, Jaafari, with the support of Sadr’s Tayyera Sadriyyin, won by one vote over the candidate of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. But now Jaafari must receive the support of two-thirds of the entire Parliament before he can take office. A bloc of Sunnis, Kurds and now Shiites from SCIRI have stalled his appointment.)

The early April visit to Baghdad by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw did little to calm leaders, who complain that the United States is meddling in Iraqi politics. Reports that Khalilzad told SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim that Washington did not support Jaafari have further angered many Shiites. Khalilzad used the press conference in which he announced the release of kidnapped US journalist Jill Carroll to deny that he made such statements before walking out without taking questions from reporters. But Khalilzad has already become public enemy number one in the eyes of the Sadriyyin and other Shiites, some of whom have begun referring to him (a Sunni Afghan) as “Abu Omar,” a reference to a Sunni caliph in the seventh century who fought Shiites. Some clerics have called openly for Khalilzad’s expulsion from the country.

Jawad al-Maliky, Ibrahim Jaafari’s deputy in the Dawa Party, is blunt when asked about Khalilzad’s denial. “He lied,” Maliky says. “It is dangerous if he remains here. He endangers our democracy and he creates sectarianism. He will cost the United States our cooperation. If Jaafari is forced out, there will be problems in Iraq. Khalilzad wants more fighting.”

Jaafari’s removal could sink the already stalled political process. The Sadriyyin have threatened to boycott the government if his nomination is overturned. Members of the Mahdi Army use the Shiite honorific “Sayyed Jaafari” in referring to him, though he does not wear cleric’s garb (Jaafari is, like Sadr, technically a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, according to Shiite tradition). He was also a student of Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, Muqtada’s uncle and the founder of the Dawa Party, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1980. “If Ibrahim Jaafari leaves the government, the Mahdi Army will leave the government,” says Abu Ali Tamimi, a Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City. “The US is afraid of Jaafari because he is supported by Tayyera Sadriyyin.”

Against this backdrop of political gridlock, bodies continue to turn up on the streets of Baghdad every day, the victims of sectarian assassinations. Sadr has officially called on his militia to not attack Sunnis, but young, unemployed men are notoriously hard to control. Just as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s ranking Shiite cleric, could not immediately convince the Mahdi Army to end its rebellion in Najaf and Baghdad against the US military in 2004, killings of Sunnis in Sadr’s name seem to be taking place regardless of whether Sistani approves.

“The Mahdi Army does not have one leader,” says Nadher Yassin Mahmoud, a Sunni imam at Rashid Dragh Mosque on Baghdad’s west side. Two of his friends, imams at other Sunni mosques, have been killed, Mahmoud says. He is making plans to move to Dubai soon. “My friend was an imam in Zafraniya — he had a very good relationship with the Mahdi Army. Some of them came to him and asked him to leave. They said, ‘We are your friends, and we do not want anything to happen to you.’ He asked why, and they just said, ‘We don’t want anything bad to happen to you.’ He left. Two days later the mosque was shot up.”

Nadher and other Sunnis also blame America for stoking sectarian tensions. Nadher refers to a message that scrolled down Iraqi TV screens recently that read, “The Ministry of Defense requests that civilians do not comply with the orders of the army or police on nightly patrols unless they are accompanied by coalition forces working in that area.” Referring to the neighborhood militias that have appeared in Sunni areas, Nadher says, “One of my friends was on the street guarding his mosque and the US military passed by and told him this. They want us to fight with each other.”

Mahdi commander Tamimi does not deny that rogue Mahdi elements are carrying out assassinations. “We have had to remove many people from the Mahdi Army,” he says. “They are fighting for their sect; they don’t care about Muqtada al-Sadr.” But Sadr’s own language has created a serious gray area, perhaps intentionally. He has approved killing of “takfiris”–Sunni extremists who consider Shiites heretics–and former Baathists. In his talks to members of the Mahdi Army, he makes it clear that he believes Sunni members of the government fall into these categories. “Saleh Mutlaq–he was a member of the Baath Party,” Tamimi says of one of the most prominent Sunni politicians in the government. He also criticizes the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the main Sunni political parties. “If they are good people, why don’t they condemn the killing of Shiites?”

The US military may still be the greatest threat to Muqtada al-Sadr’s ascendance, but many Shiites are now preparing for a widening confrontation with Sunni extremists. Both fights seem to be coming. The question of which will come first may be left up to the US military and its proxies. “On the bus people talk about the American soldiers losing the war,” says Ghaith al-Tamimi, a member of the Sadriyyin press department. “Someone else must fight the terrorists.” But Tamimi does not hide his disdain for the United States. Smiling broadly, he picks up a Kalashnikov from one of his guards and cradles it, squinting through the sight. He then raises it slightly and smiles again. “This is the only language America understands,” he says.

At the “Ocean Cliffs” press center in the Green Zone, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the US military’s Baghdad spokesman, says that dealing with the militias is the US Army’s next task in securing Iraq. “Militias are wrong. Militias are bad for the people of Iraq, and the militias have to be disbanded,” he says. “Militias can’t be tolerated, and action has to be taken.” But for now, there is more fighting between the sects than between the United States and the militias. Skirmishes between Sunni insurgents and the Mahdi Army have become a feature of life in some of the cities south of Baghdad, many of which have mixed populations of roughly equal size.

Khodair Kareem Hussein, who also lives in Imam Al-Ridha, left Mahmoudia more than two months ago. He returned in late March to empty his bank account and gather whatever belongings he could. “The Mahdi Army is facing [the Sunnis],” he says. “But they don’t have many weapons and cannot fight as well. They are also afraid that if they are on the streets with weapons, the Americans will attack them. If the Americans would help the Mahdi Army, it would be better. If anyone goes to the US military, they say, ‘It’s not our problem. The fighting is between you.’ They say, ‘Go to the Iraqi army.'” The specter of George Bush’s betrayal following the 1991 war, in which he encouraged Shiites to rise up and then allowed Saddam Hussein to crush the rebellion that followed, looms large in the Shiite consciousness. But this time, there’s no Saddam and no Iraqi air force.

“We are buying more weapons,” says Tamimi, the Mahdi Army commander. “The situation in Iraq is very bad, and we are ready to fight. Saddam had weapons factories in Abu Ghraib and Ramadi and Falluja. If the Americans leave, [Sunni insurgents] will have these weapons, and we don’t.”

“We are all the army of the Iman [Mahdi Army],” says Naim Hussein, who lost three cousins in sectarian fighting. “We are waiting for the green light from our leaders. If there were really a civil war, there would be no Sunnis left.”

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