A Scramble to Defend the Mosque
Cry of 'God Is Great' Mobilizes Secular Baghdad Neighborhood Against Attack

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 18, 2006

BAGHDAD, May 17 -- His generator roaring in the dark of the locked-down neighborhood outside, Mohammed, a former Iraqi army officer, took a sip from a Corona beer in his brightly lit living room and laughed. "Beverly Hills Cop II." Always funny.

His wife, beside him on the couch, got up and called toward their boys' room for them to turn off either the Playstation or the computer: The grumbling of the generator signaled that it was working too hard.

The boys kept playing and typing, ignoring their parents, and then ignoring an explosion outside, followed by the sound of gunfire. Their little sister, up late and wired at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, barely halted in her running back and forth between her bedroom and a candy dish beside her father. The blast belonged to the war outside.

Just to be sure, Mohammed grabbed his pistol in one hand, his beer in the other, and headed up to the roof to check. A sudden wail stopped him, electrifying him.

"God is great!" cried a man he took to be the imam of one of the mosques of the neighborhood, the urgency and fear in his voice coming loud and clear over the electronic sound system. "God is great!"

The imam's cry was the alarm recognized in all neighborhoods -- Sunni or Shiite -- across Baghdad. The mosque was under attack.

The account of what followed was provided by witnesses and participants, whose full names and other identifying details are being withheld for their protection.

Across that pocket of Zayuna, a neighborhood originally created for army officers in the 1960s, the largely middle-class and heavily secular population of retired colonels, shop owners and professionals slammed their drinks down on coffee tables or lurched upright from their sleep. Though some could count the months, even years, since they last attended prayers, they knew that if the mosque was under attack, Zayuna might be under attack.

Since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine in Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, an uproar late at night in a Sunni neighborhood such as Zayuna had often meant a house-to-house sweep by Shiite militias or police. Sunni males would sometimes be taken away by gunmen, uniformed or otherwise, and never return, unless their families recovered their bodies.

Mohammed's wife grabbed her jewelry and gathered up the family's cellphones, hiding them from possible thieves. "God save you, please stay," she pleaded with her husband as she herded the children into the most remote bedroom, the youngest girl now crying.

"I can't wait until they come in," Mohammed said, brushing past her, and then past his mother, quietly entreating, trying to block him at the gate.

Up and down dark streets across Zayuna, silhouettes of the men of households popped up against the roofline, then gathered in tight clusters. Men conferred anxiously before the steel gates of homes. Mohammed attached himself to one knot -- an auto-parts dealer, a physician, an engineer, a shop owner -- men he had known as boys, now paunchy family men. Two hid pistols in the folds of their nightclothes; two openly held AK-47 assault rifles.

"We're going to the mosque," the auto-parts dealer said, joined by another man. Unwilling to let the two go by themselves, and curious, the neighbors all set off together.

Suspected Affiliations

At the mosque, Bahaa, a 28-year-old merchant, took the sudden thunder of an explosion to be a mortar shell fired by one of the many armed groups turning Baghdad into something like Beirut in the 1980s. He and other men of the neighborhood had been volunteering to stand night watch at the mosque since the Feb. 22 shrine bombing.

The next clatter was gunfire. At the front gate of the mosque, Bahaa said, he found a colleague just inside, spraying rounds from an AK-47. The explosion, he said, had been a grenade that landed just outside the gate, blowing asphalt out of the road.

Two days after the attack, Bahaa could give only a confused account of his role in the defense, saying, for instance, that in five to 10 minutes of shooting, he never saw the attackers. But guards Monday pointed to the dip taken out of the road, to a plastic bag full of scores of mixed bullet shells they had gathered, and to the holes punched through the metal gates and into the plaster walls of the mosque by PKC machine guns and AK-47s. Police have PKCs bolted onto the back of their pickup trucks, as do others among Iraq's armed bands.

One guard said the mosque was attacked by men in two vehicles, one of them a white pickup truck of the kind used by police, but unmarked. A woman who lives near the mosque independently described seeing such a truck speed away as she called to her husband to come inside. But with vehicles, weapons, even uniforms used interchangeably by the Shiite-led government's security forces and by Shiite militias affiliated with the governing political parties, the attackers escaped into the vast gray zone that hides so many of Iraq's killers.

American forces in Humvees arrived an hour or so after the attack, searched and left, the guards said. The U.S. military later said it had no record of U.S. involvement after the raid.

It was the third attack on this mosque since Feb. 22, making Zayuna one of Baghdad's calmer neighborhoods.

'This Isn't the End'

Police -- real ones, known to the neighbors -- stopped by. It was all over, the policemen said. The Americans would guard the mosque. Go home, or else the Americans might see you with your guns and shoot you, the police warned.

Lingering, the men spoke among themselves. "This isn't the end," the spare-parts dealer said. "It's going to get worse every day. We should do something."

But what? Hire neighborhood guards? Many on the block were retired, living on pensions, and couldn't afford it. Barricade the neighborhood and stand guard by night themselves, as the Sunnis of the Adhamiyah neighborhood did? Many of Zayuna's men were professionals, not shop owners who could sleep through the morning like Adhamiyah's people. It was a conversation that hadn't started that night, and wouldn't be resolved that night, Mohammed realized. He left.

Before Mohammed went to bed, an older neighbor called. "All of you are all right?" the woman asked, anxiously.

Like many, or most, of Baghdad's families, Mohammed's had lost men to violence in the last year. So had the woman's family. Just after the Feb. 22 bombing, her husband and three other white-haired, retired men had been taken from prayer at another mosque in Zayuna by Shiite militiamen. Word was they had all been subjected to a mock trial at a police station and executed. The killers shot the woman's husband in the eyes and mouth. Before they could wrap him decently in a burial shroud, men of the neighborhood had to wrestle with his corpse in a bathtub of hot water, prying his rigid arms out of the position in which his hands had been cuffed behind his back.

Mohammed stretched out before his front door, pistol to one side of him on the floor, AK-47 to the other, cellphone beside his head. After two hours' sleep, he went up on the roof to watch until dawn.

By Monday, the mosque's imam, frightened, had moved away. At night, Mohammed and his wife now talked of nothing but leaving Iraq. When she dropped off into fitful sleep -- in stifling heat, now that the generator had died -- Mohammed would move back up on the roof. All around him were anxious neighbors, moving shadows standing guard.

Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company