A Shuttered City Waits Uneasily

Shops are closed in Karada district during a daytime curfew imposed on Baghdad to quell clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Shops are closed in Karada district during a daytime curfew imposed on Baghdad to quell clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. (By Namir Noor-eldeen -- Reuters)
By Jonathan Finer and K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 25, 2006

BAGHDAD, Feb. 24 -- In the hours before dawn, as thousands of police and soldiers locked down almost every block in Baghdad, members of a Shiite Muslim militia took drive-by potshots at two Sunni Arab mosques in the embattled southern district of Dora.

Later, in the Tunis neighborhood north of downtown, gunmen tried to storm the main Sunni mosque, but guards from a nearby Shiite mosque opened fire, driving them away.

But when a rare daylight curfew took effect -- imposed by the government to stem the violence, almost like a basketball coach calling timeout to prevent a rout -- it was a day unlike any other in recent memory in the Iraqi capital and three of its surrounding provinces.

Extended curfews were implemented three times here in the past year, each during nationwide elections. But on those occasions, streets took on the festive atmosphere of a block party, with families strolling hand-in-hand and children playing soccer on the asphalt.

On Friday, Baghdad -- so quiet in places that salesmen beating drums of gasoline to attract customers could be heard for several blocks -- felt like the eye of a gathering storm.

With cars banned and most shops already closed for weekly prayer services, many streets stood starkly empty. In some neighborhoods, walking outside was forbidden, and soldiers fired shots in the air to keep people at home. In others, residents made tentative forays on a warm, cloudless afternoon to buy food or visit mosques.

Although many Iraqis welcomed the curfew, and the accompanying respite from violence, few said they expected it to halt the bloodshed. Some said they found the presence of troops in the streets unsettling.

"We are afraid that this curfew will give the Interior Ministry and its commandos an excuse to arrest people randomly and kill them," said Nabil Adnan, 30, a government employee in Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, where a Shiite shrine was bombed on Wednesday, triggering the current wave of sectarian violence. Thousands of pilgrims -- Shiite and Sunni alike -- who in a show of solidarity had traveled to Samarra from as far away as the southern city of Basra were greeted Friday by security forces who surrounded mosques and turned people away, sparking sporadic protests.

Elsewhere, pleas for unity resounded from mosques' loudspeakers as religious leaders sought to pull followers back from the brink of unrestrained sectarian conflict.

"Sunnis and Shiites, there is no difference between us, and if we stay together we can push the terrorists out of the country," said the imam of a mosque in the Baghdad neighborhood of Jadriyah, where the crowd spilled into the street outside. "We must come together under the banner of 'There is no god but God.' "

In the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada, a food cart labeled "hot dogs" stood abandoned on a normally bustling main street. Two old men sat on the sidewalk next to several empty pans usually packed with masgoof , a local fish specialty.

"We don't even speak of what's going on in the country right now, because you have to be too careful about who is Sunni and who is Shiite," said Aland Jamal, 21, a student at Baghdad Technical University who had walked two hours from his home to retrieve a statistics textbook he needed to study for an exam.

Down the block, Sattar Abdul-Jabbar, 30, a taxi driver, washed his blue Hyundai Elantra with a filthy sponge. He said he had intended to return home to Baqubah, north of Baghdad, on Thursday evening but had been trapped by the curfew. He said he planned to leave as soon as the roads were opened.

At the Sunni Rawi mosque in the western neighborhood of Khadra, at least 16 teenagers and young men armed with AK-47 rifles took up positions on the roof and at the perimeter of the building to guard the more than 350 worshipers who attended services despite the curfew.

The men, who did not give their names, said they had been asked to defend the grounds against "those wearing black shirts," a reference to the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia blamed by Sunnis for attacks on dozens of mosques in recent days and for the abduction of worshipers as recently as Friday afternoon.

"Things can go in any direction right now," said Haji Rafa, 50, who had a close-cropped gray beard and wore a green dishdasha , or traditional robe. "Sunnis and Shiites have lived together for 1,400 years, and I have never seen a time like this."

Special correspondents Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and Hassan Shammari in Baqubah and other Washington Post staff members contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company