Successive waves of ethnic cleansing that have washed over Baghdad in recent weeks are spreading to neighborhoods that had until now been spared.
“Today two of the Shiite families on our street received threats,” said a woman living in Baghdad’s Sadia district, a majority-Sunni area where until now the presence of the Jaish al-Mahdi, a Shiite militia, had apparently pre-empted cleansing.
As the Bush Administration seeks to send as many as 20,000 more US troops to Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced Saturday that three more Iraqi army units will also be deployed in the capital. The units will come from the Shiite south and the Kurdish north, where the military is little more than militia units loyal to various political leaderships.
Salam al-Midi is a Kurd and a former US military translator living in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the two major Kurdish political parties use pesh merga units to maintain a police state. In Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, three hours north of Baghdad, Midi helped the military train these units, which essentially make up the police force in the largely Arab city. Midi said the presence of pesh merga in Mosul only exacerbates decades-old tensions between Kurds and Arabs over political dominance in the city.
“They don’t know the language, the Arabic language, it’s hard. It’s one of the major difficulties they will face,” Midi said. “Second, they are Kurds. Comparing Kurds and Arabs is like comparing apples and oranges. They cannot work together. For sure, terrorist organizations are going to react, and their reactions are going to be bad. And at the same time the Kurdish side will want to take revenge on the Arabs, the Iraqi people.”
Sunni parliamentarians have complained that the plan does not focus heavily enough on battling Shiite militias like the Mehdi Army, which is blamed for engaging in ethnic cleansing and assassinations. Many Shiites, on the other hand, view the militia as necessary to provide any modicum of safety against Sunni guerillas and lawlessness. In hopes of weakening the hold the Jeish al-Mehdi has on some neighborhoods, Maliki has announced a conscription drive for the Iraqi army which will focus most heavily on Sadr City, the poor neighborhood of more than 2 million which the militia essentially controls and provides the only available social services, some men said they would remain with the militia rather than join the military. Families are being asked to provide one man between the ages of 15 and 48 to fight with the militia.
Ghaith al-Tamimi, a member of Sadr’s press department in Baghdad, says he is concerned about the initiative–though some militia units have engaged in ethnic cleansing, other have served a more defensive purpose.
“Involving more people and conscription will not solve the situation. I think it will make things worse and probably make the situation better for civil war. I ask people not to get young people, Shiites and Sunnis, involved.”
It reminds others of another dark time.
“This is going to take us back to Saddam’s times,” said Ahmed Radhi, a 21-year-old member of the militia who lives in Sadr City. “We thought when the Americans came they were going to get rid of Saddam and his oppression. It used to be obligatory even for disabled people. This is going to take us to Saddam’s times, as if nothing has changed. Saddam is not dead, Saddam is still here.”
Muthanna Harith al-Dhari, the son of Harith al-Dhari, the spokesman of Iraq’s influential Association of Muslim Scholars, a hard-line Sunni group, pointed out that this is not the first time security plans for the capital have been announced. As violence rose steadily throughout last year, sweeps of Baghdad have done little to impede the ability of Iraqi guerrillas and militiamen to attack US troops or one another. December was the third deadliest month of the war for US troops and the deadliest for Iraqis.
Harith al-Dhari left Iraq after being threatened with arrest by the current government and accused of terrorist activities by Muqtada al-Sadr, the most influential hard-line Shiite cleric and the Mahdi Army’s nominal leader. But Dhari’s son Muthanna, who remains in Baghdad, said that past security plans–which mostly amounted to sweeps of neighborhoods known for Sunni guerrilla activity–created resentment among the population. He also warned against adding US troops.
“We think that the security plan that started today does not follow good principles,” the younger Dhari said. “To figure out the situation, they should take into account who is responsible for poor security. They have a lot of foreign troops making all these problems, and now they will send more and it will make a bigger problem. They will search the areas where they think the problems are starting. Can they tell us if the security plans they have used until now have had any success? I can tell you there is nothing new here, it is the same old thing. They just will make more checkpoints, which will make people’s lives more difficult.
In largely Sunni cities such as Falluja and Samarra, the presence of Shiite militias and Kurdish pesh merga in the military has already added acrimony to claims of collective punishment, round-ups, raids and death-squad activity.
That record makes many Iraqis uneasy when they see announcements like the Iraqi Ministry of Defense recent disclosure that the US military will provide 4,000 armored personnel carriers, 1,800 Humvees and sixteen helicopter gunships to the Iraqi military. Until now, the United States has been reluctant to provide such heavy materiel.
“Any support to the sectarianism and the security mess will be preparation for the civil war. This will increase the violence in Iraq, and they will fail again,” said Saleh Mutlaq, leader of the Iraqi Dialogue Front, a secular party accused by its critics of links to the previous government. “America is sending tools to strengthen sectarian strife and the civil war. These tools are dirty and will be given to dirty people.”