Distrust Breaks the Bonds Of a Baghdad Neighborhood

A herder tends his flock in the barricaded streets of Tobji, a neighborhood where Sunnis and Shiites long coexisted. Shiite militiamen have targeted Sunnis at checkpoints.
A herder tends his flock in the barricaded streets of Tobji, a neighborhood where Sunnis and Shiites long coexisted. Shiite militiamen have targeted Sunnis at checkpoints. (The Washington Post)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

BAGHDAD -- It began with a dispute over the price of ice and erupted into full-scale violence over the sighting of two strange cars cruising the neighborhood. A week later, the scars of sectarian strife were visible everywhere in Tobji.

Short concrete blocks and long coils of razor wire barred entry into every block. Stores stood shuttered, and black banners mourned the dead. Women and children stayed inside their sunbaked houses. And young men stood on corners, their eyes darting suspiciously at every car that drove through their divided neighborhood.

The scars were also heard in the perplexed voice of Ibrahim Abdul Sattar, a Sunni Arab whose mother and wife, as well as three-quarters of his friends, are Shiite Muslims. He and so many others in Tobji are trapped in a war that is reshaping the identity of their neighborhood and their shared way of life.

"We have been living together for 30 years. We've never had such tensions like this before," he said. "We are fearing for our future."

Across the capital, mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods have become battlegrounds of sectarian hostilities. West of the Tigris River, hundreds of Shiite families have fled mostly Sunni neighborhoods such as Amiriyah and Ghazaliya. In the east, hundreds of Sunni families have fled mostly Shiite areas such as Amin and Shaab. Increasingly, the strife is spreading into central Baghdad. In still-mixed neighborhoods such as Tobji, nestled in north-central Baghdad, political and militant Islam is clashing with tribal customs and a shared Arab and Muslim identity that have bonded Sunnis and Shiites for decades.

The latest conflagration in Tobji, which is officially named Salaam, or peace, began Aug. 8. What unfolded over a period of 10 days illuminates the way sectarian tension spreads in mixed neighborhoods, as well as the murky forces that drive it. This article is based on interviews with Sunni and Shiite residents, Sunni tribal elders, Shiite militiamen and Iraqi army commanders as the events unfolded in Tobji, as well as visits to the area during and after the tensions.

The Prelude

Abu Mohammed, a short man with a trim beard and crooked teeth, has spent his whole life in Tobji. He is a Shiite; his next-door neighbor was a Sunni. Growing up, sect never mattered. He played, studied and socialized with Sunnis.

Now, sect means everything. After the ouster of President Saddam Hussein, Abu Mohammed joined the Mahdi Army, the militia of radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose shadowy death squads are widely believed to exact street justice under the cloak of Islam, something Sadr has denied. As the chaos deepened, Abu Mohammed became more suspicious of his Sunni neighbors, particularly after the bombing of a Shiite holy shrine in Samarra in February.

Three months ago, Mahdi Army militiamen erected checkpoints at each end of Tobji's main thoroughfare, lined with shops and small restaurants. The Iraqi army soldiers who patrol the area and are widely believed to be sympathetic to Shiites did nothing to stop them, residents said.

At the checkpoints, the militiamen targeted members of the Sunni Egheidat tribe. They demanded to see residents' identification cards before they could enter their own neighborhood. The militiamen viewed the Egheidat as sympathetic to Sunni radicals who have waged a three-year insurgency against Iraq's Shiite-led government and its American backers.

"The imam's army is a dogmatic people's army to keep order, prevent killings and chaos, and to spread Islam," said Abu Mohammed, who asked that his full name not be used. "The Egheidat are terrorists."

Moments later, as if to demonstrate his influence, he pulled out an Iraqi Interior Ministry identification card, showing his real name and his police commando unit, the Wolf Brigade. The card was evidence that members of the Mahdi Army had infiltrated the Interior Ministry's elite forces, as has long been suspected. Then he flashed his license to legally carry a firearm.

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