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Iraq Is the Republic of Fear

The Mahdi militiamen were already back in force that morning, blocking off the roads and searching all who approached, wielding Iraqi police-issue Glock pistols and carrying Iraqi police-issue handcuffs. In Baghdad and most of Iraq, the police are the Mahdi Army and the Mahdi Army is the police. The same holds for the actual Iraqi army, posted throughout the country.

The sectarian tensions have overtaken far more than Iraq's security forces and its streets. Militias now routinely enter hospitals to hunt down or arrest those who have survived their raids. And many Iraqi government ministries are now filled with the banners and slogans of Shiite religious groups, which now exert total control over these key agencies. If you are not with them, you are gone.

For instance, in the negotiations between parties after the January 2005 elections, Sadr loyalists gained control over the ministries of health and transportation and immediately began cleansing them of Sunnis and Shiites not aligned with Sadr. The process was officially known by the Sadrists as "cleansing the ministry of Saddamists." Indeed, some government offices now do not accept Sunnis as employees at all.

Based on my visits to the ministries, it is clear that an apartheid process began after the Shiites' electoral success. In the Ministry of Health, you see pictures of Moqtada al-Sadr and his father everywhere. Traditional Shiite music reverberates throughout the hallways. Doctors and ministry staffers refer to the minister of health as imami, or "my imam," as though he were a cleric. I also saw walls adorned with Shiite posters -- including ones touting Sadr -- in the Ministry of Transportation. Sunni staffers have been pushed out of both ministries, while the Ministry of Interior is under the control of another Shiite movement, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (its name alone a sufficient statement of its intentions).

Shiites with no apparent qualifications have filled the ranks. In one case in the transportation ministry, a Sunni chief engineer was fired and replaced with an unqualified Shiite who wore a cleric's turban to work. In all cases, this has led to a stark drop in efficiency, with the health and transportation ministries barely functioning, and the interior ministry operating much like an anti-Sunni death squad, with secret prisons uncovered last November, and people disappearing after raids by shadowy government security units operating at night.

Even shared opposition to the Occupation couldn't unite Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites, and perhaps that was inevitable given their bitter history of mutual hostility. Instead, as the fighting against the Americans intensified, tensions between Sunni and Shiite began to grow, eventually setting off the vicious sectarian cleansing that is Iraq today.

During the first battle of Fallujah, in the spring of 2004, Sunni insurgents fought alongside some Shiite forces against the Americans; by that fall, the Sunnis waged their resistance alone in Fallujah, and they resented the Shiites' indifference.

But by that time, Shiite frustration with Sunnis for harboring Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the bloodthirsty head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, led some to feel that the Fallujans were getting what they deserved. The cycle of violence escalated from there. When Sunni refugees from Fallujah settled in west Baghdad's Sunni strongholds such as Ghazaliya, al-Amriya and Khadhra, the first Shiiite families began to get threats to leave. In Amriya, Shiites who ignored the threats had their homes attacked or their men murdered by Sunni militias.

This is when sectarian cleansing truly began. Sunni refugees in Amriya seized homes vacated by Shiites. These operations were conducted by insurgents as well as relatives of the refugees. Soon such cleansing had become widespread and commonplace, both out of vengeance and out of its own cruel logic; both sides took part. There was no space left in Iraq for nonsectarian voices. Sunnis and Shiites alike were pushed into the arms of their respective militias, often joining out of self-defense. Shiites obtained lists of the Baath party cadres that were the foundation of Hussein's regime and began systematically assassinating Sunnis who had belonged. Sunni militias that had fought the American occupier became Sunni militias protecting Sunni territory from Shiite incursions and retaliating in Shiite areas. The insurgency became secondary as resistance moved to self-defense. In the Shiite-dominated south, meanwhile, Shiite militias battled each other and the British forces.

In November I asked a close Shiite friend if -- considering all this violence, crime and radicalism in Iraq -- life had not been better under Hussein.

"No," he said definitively. "They could level all of Baghdad and it would still be better than Saddam. At least we have hope."

A few weeks later, though, he e-mailed me in despair: "A civil war will happen I'm sure of it . . . you can't be comfortable talking with a man until you know if he was Shia or Sunni, . . . Politicians don't trust each other, People don't trust each other. [There is] seeking revenge, weak government, separate regions for the opponents . . . We have a civil war here; it is only a matter of time, and some peppers to provoke it."

The time came on Feb. 22, when the Golden Mosque of the Shiites in Samarra was blown up. More than 1,000 Sunnis were killed in retribution, and then the Shiite-controlled interior ministry prevented an accurate body count from being released. Attacks on mosques, mostly Sunni ones, increased. Officially, Moqtada al-Sadr opposed attacks on Sunnis, but he unleashed his fighters on them after the bombing.

Sectarian and ethnic cleansing has since continued apace, as mixed neighborhoods are "purified." In Amriya, dead bodies are being found on the main street at a rate of three or five or seven a day. People are afraid to approach the bodies, or call for an ambulance or the police, for fear that they, too, will be found dead the following day. In Abu Ghraib, Dora, Amriya and other once-diverse neighborhoods, Shiites are being forced to leave. In Maalif and Shaab, Sunnis are being targeted.

The world wonders if Iraq is on the brink of civil war, while Iraqis fear calling it one, knowing the fate such a description would portend. In truth, the civil war started long before Samarra and long before the first uprisings. It started when U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad. It began when Sunnis discovered what they had lost, and Shiites learned what they had gained. And the worst is yet to come.

Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of "In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq" (Free Press).

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