By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 11, 2006
BAGHDAD -- To generations of its residents, the tightknit neighborhood known as Tobji was among this city's rare oases. People argued amiably in sidewalk cafes kept open until nearly midnight. Shiite and Sunni Muslims married into each other's families and lived side-by-side. Until recently, Iraq's police and army, with more than enough trouble spots to worry about, rarely came around.
It was a neighborhood, residents said, that lived up to its formal name, Salam, which means peace. But in volatile Baghdad, home to more than 5 million people, even stable sections sit a few stray shots from chaos. It took scarcely two months for the sectarian conflict consuming other corners of the capital to gain a foothold in Tobji.
It began, residents say, one November day when gunmen killed Majid Abdul Hussein, a local preacher and member of a powerful Shiite militia. Days later, a former member of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led Baath Party was gunned down in broad daylight. Before locals realized it, they said, theirs had become yet another fractured community, a place nearly silent after dark save for the crackle of gunfire.
Then, on Jan. 23, men in camouflage uniforms rounded up 53 Tobji residents, nearly all of them Sunnis, in pre-dawn raids. Two people were killed. Other than two old men who were released days later, none of those taken have been heard from since.
Locals said the uniforms the gunmen wore and the vehicles they drove identified them as Interior Ministry police commandos, whose ranks are dominated by former members of Shiite factional militias. Since Iraq's Shiite majority first gained political power in elections a year ago, raids like the one in Tobji have taken place in neighborhoods in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. They always target Sunni men, and witnesses always implicate the police.
Iraqi officials have denied any government role in the raids, blaming groups intent on destabilizing the country.
"It happens too often that people impersonate government forces, impersonate police," said Baghdad's governor, Hussein Taha, who oversees his province's police force. "When the terrorists feel chased in one area, they transfer to another and carry out operations there randomly, even if it affects civilians. That is what happened to Tobji."
Asked how many Tobji residents have died violently in recent months, Mariam Nouri, 27, whose family came to the neighborhood more than 50 years ago, counted them by name.
"There's Hussein, Firas, Abbas, Osama, Uday," said Nouri, a Sunni, whose brother, father and uncle were dragged from her home during the recent raid. Hardly pausing for breath, she ticked off 11 of the dead from memory. "It might be more like 15," she said. "There are some I've forgotten."
Sunni leaders have responded to the raids in Tobji, northwest of downtown, and in other Baghdad neighborhoods by calling on residents to defend themselves. Adnan Dulaimi, a prominent Sunni Arab politician, called for further unrest unless the country's next government puts police beyond the control of Shiite militias. The Iraqi Accordance Front, the country's dominant Sunni political group, warned Wednesday of "nationwide civil disobedience" unless what it termed "haphazard raids" were halted.
Observers in the capital say the destructive cycle of raids, denunciations and retaliatory violence represents the first tentative steps toward a wider sectarian conflict spreading like a virus from community to community.
"It started in Iskan, then Sadiya and Ghazaliya," said Abbas Lafta, 35, a Shiite resident of Tobji, citing once-tranquil Baghdad enclaves that have fallen like dominoes toward his neighborhood in the past year. "People used to move here to get away from those places. Now we are one of them."Neighborhood Checkpoints
Bounded by a highway overpass and a park with a scraggly dirt soccer field, Tobji got its name from the cramped commercial street, lined with vendors' stalls, that bisects the neighborhood. Dozens of sheep graze along a grassy median, snarling traffic near an open-air market.
On a recent weekday, side roads leading from a main thoroughfare were blocked with concrete barriers, and Iraqi soldiers operated a checkpoint at the top of one busy street. A second checkpoint on the neighborhood's southern edge was manned entirely by civilians, who watched cars intently as they departed. It was not always this way.
"It is like someone saw this was a safe place and wanted to provoke things," said Muthana Mahmoud, 43, who has lived in Tobji all his life.
Juliet Hadad, 41, a mother of six, said: "Before, when we lived normally, you would feel no tension here. Now we are scared, not just of Sunnis, but of our own people. I grounded my children. I don't let them go anywhere now."
As the conflict began to escalate late last year, eight people were killed in a two-week span following the country's Dec. 15 elections. But it was the Jan. 23 raid, Sunni and Shiite residents said, that did the most to inflame sectarian tension.
Residents said it began just after 4 a.m., as about 20 sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks without license plates, resembling those driven by Iraq's police commandos, rumbled into the neighborhood bearing a force of nearly 200 armed men.
For the next three hours, the gunmen, many of them clad in yellow-and-gray camouflage uniforms, burst into Sunnis' homes, sometimes leaping from roof to roof, rounding up men and terrifying their families. They took their cell phones and cut landlines so residents could not call for help.
"They had beards, and their dialect sounded like they were from the south," said Mahmoud, who said three men leapt onto his roof from a neighbor's window. When his brother answered the door, one of the men asked him, "Are you Abu Abbas?"
"No," his brother said. "I don't know who that is."
"They blindfolded him and took him outside," Mahmoud said. "Then they came back for me. They took me up to the roof and held me over the edge by my feet. They only let me go when my mother came up, screaming."
Nouri thought her family would be safe, even though they are Sunnis, because her father and uncle work for Interior Ministry police units. But even after presenting their identification cards to the gunmen, they were detained.
"When my sister asked, 'Why, why are you taking them when they are like you?' they pointed their guns at her and hit her on the head," Nouri said. "I was cursing them and saying, 'God is my defender!' "
Down the street, two men who tried to defend their homes were killed. When the gunmen grabbed the wife of Bilal Ali Ghazal by the hair and pulled her toward their car, he grabbed a rifle and went to his roof, firing shots to try to draw help. An attacker in the street shot him in the stomach.
Ismael Egaidi killed one of the gunmen who entered his home before dying in a hail of bullets, residents said.
Desperate to find what became of the 51 men who were detained but never released, Tobji residents said they had made daily visits to Baghdad's Interior Ministry, only to be told there was no information. When word spread that seven bullet-riddled bodies had turned up in the Rustamiyah neighborhood, relatives of those detained in Tobji dashed to the morgue to look for familiar faces. They found none.
Residents say the government's denial of police involvement in the raid does not square with what they witnessed that night. The assailants were driving around Baghdad in a large convoy of sport-utility vehicles that locals recognized as those used by police since the late 1990s. They wore camouflage uniforms and carried Glock pistols, the same as those issued to police officers.
"Explain to me how this can be anyone other than the Iraqi security forces," said Muhammed Majid, a Tobji resident. But even Majid acknowledged that he could not be sure who was responsible.Armed Citizens
With nowhere else to turn, Tobji residents intent on stopping the escalating violence are relying on one another. In recent weeks, both Sunnis and Shiites have contributed manpower to an 80-member neighborhood citizens force that patrols the streets alongside the Iraqi army, manning checkpoints and alerting soldiers to suspicious outsiders.
Neighbors have started collecting money to pay a small salary to the volunteers, who call themselves "the guardians."
When they first took to the streets in December, they were arrested and their guns confiscated by Iraqi police because they had no licenses to carry weapons. But after the January raid, they demanded, and were issued, badges from the Interior Ministry authorizing them to carry rifles.
"Some of them were in the military once, but they all know how to use guns," said Lafta, the 35-year-old neighborhood resident, who helps supervise the program. "Things have been a bit quieter since they got out there."
But many residents insist the neighborhood will never be the same.
"The politicians say, 'Defend yourself,' but how do you defend yourself against an army with machine guns and vehicles?" Mahmoud said. "The ones who defended themselves are the ones who got killed."
Residents said the influx of people fleeing other neighborhoods since 2003 has steadily driven up apartment rents. But now a migration out of Tobji is underway.
"I don't think we will ever get back what we had," Lafta said. "The number who were arrested was so large, and their relatives are so angry. They will not rest. They will always have hatred in their hearts. They will want to take more revenge. I know Shiites who have already gotten threatening letters. If I get one, I will leave."
Special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.