Iraq Is the Republic of Fear

By Nir Rosen
Sunday, May 28, 2006

Every morning the streets of Baghdad are littered with dozens of bodies, bruised, torn, mutilated, executed only because they are Sunni or because they are Shiite. Power drills are an especially popular torture device.

I have spent nearly two of the three years since Baghdad fell in Iraq. On my last trip, a few weeks back, I flew out of the city overcome with fatalism. Over the course of six weeks, I worked with three different drivers; at various times each had to take a day off because a neighbor or relative had been killed. One morning 14 bodies were found, all with ID cards in their front pockets, all called Omar. Omar is a Sunni name. In Baghdad these days, nobody is more insecure than men called Omar. On another day a group of bodies was found with hands folded on their abdomens, right hand over left, the way Sunnis pray. It was a message. These days many Sunnis are obtaining false papers with neutral names. Sunni militias are retaliating, stopping buses and demanding the jinsiya , or ID cards, of all passengers. Individuals belonging to Shiite tribes are executed.

Under the reign of Saddam Hussein, dissidents called Iraq "the republic of fear" and hoped it would end when Hussein was toppled. But the war, it turns out, has spread the fear democratically. Now the terror is not merely from the regime, or from U.S. troops, but from everybody, everywhere.

At first, the dominant presence of the U.S. military -- with its towering vehicles rumbling through Baghdad's streets and its soldiers like giants with their vests and helmets and weapons -- seemed overwhelming. The Occupation could be felt at all times. Now in Baghdad, you can go days without seeing American soldiers. Instead, it feels as if Iraqis are occupying Iraq, their masked militiamen blasting through traffic in anonymous security vehicles, shooting into the air, angrily shouting orders on loudspeakers, pointing their Kalashnikovs at passersby.

Today, the Americans are just one more militia lost in the anarchy. They, too, are killing Iraqis.

Last fall I visited the home of a Sunni man called Sabah in the western Baghdad suburb of Radwaniya, where the Sunni resistance had long had a presence, and where a U.S. soldier had recently been killed. On Friday night a few days before I came, his family told me, American soldiers surrounded the home where Sabah lived with his brothers, Walid and Hussein, and their families and broke down the door. The women and children were herded outside, walking past Sabah, whose nose was broken, and Walid, who had the barrel of a soldier's machine gun in his mouth. The soldiers beat the men with rifle butts, while the Shiite Iraqi translator accompanying the troops exhorted the Americans to execute the Sunnis.

As the terrified family waited outside, they heard three shots from inside. It then sounded to them as though there was a scuffle inside, with the soldiers shouting at each other. Thirty minutes later the translator emerged with a picture of Sabah. "Who is Sabah's wife?" he asked. "Your husband was killed by the Americans, and he deserved to die," he told her. At that he tore the picture before her face.

Walid was then taken away, and inside the house the family found Sabah dead. His bloody shirt showed three bullet holes that went through his chest; two of the bullets had come out of his back and lodged in the wall behind him. Three U.S.-made bullet casings were on the floor. Sofas and beds had been overturned and torn apart; tables, closets, vases of plastic flowers, all were broken and tossed around. Even the cars had been destroyed. Photographs of Sabah had been torn up and his ID card confiscated. One photograph remained on his wife's bureau: Sabah standing proudly in front of his Mercedes.

I later asked Hussein if they wanted revenge. "We are Muslim, praise God," he said, "and we do not want revenge. He was innocent and he was killed, so he is a martyr."

Across town, U.S. troops had also raided the Mustapha Huseiniya, a Shiite place of worship in the Ur neighborhood. The Huseiniya, similar to a mosque, belonged to the nationalistic and anti-occupation Moqtada al-Sadr movement, and in front of its short tower were immense signs with images of the movement's important clerics. The Sadr militia, known as the Army of the Mahdi, had been using the Huseiniya as a base for counterinsurgency operations. Mahdi militiamen kidnapped Sunnis suspected of supporting the insurgency, tortured them until they confessed on video, and then executed them.

When the Americans raided the Huseiniya, they brought Iraqi troops with them. They killed not only Mahdi fighters but also innocent Shiite bystanders, including a young journalist I knew named Kamal Anbar, in what witnesses described to me as summary executions. Although neighbors blamed the U.S. troops, Iraqi troops were so laden with gear, flak jackets and helmets provided by the Americans, they were often indistinguishable.

When I visited the next morning, the Huseiniya's floors, walls and ceilings were stained with blood; pieces of brain lay in caked red puddles. Just as Shiites cheered when the Americans hit Sunni targets, Sunni supporters of the insurgency greeted news of the U.S. raid with satisfaction.

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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