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Distrust Breaks the Bonds Of a Baghdad Neighborhood
In Mixed Area, Violence Defies Peace Efforts

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.

Soon after the checkpoints went up, the Egheidat began to arm themselves. They had lived in the neighborhood for decades, and controlled the ice factories and a cooking oil distributorship. They believed fervently in the Sunni interpretation of Islam, in which the caliphs who succeeded the prophet Muhammad are seen as Islam's rightful rulers.

"We've lived with Egheidat for 50 years," said Abdul Sattar, who is not an Egheidat. "I'm not sure if they are making bombs. They are a religious people, and they are always praying. This is a reason they are targeted, maybe."

"Maybe also the reason is economic," he continued. "The Egheidat are wealthy."

Last month, Abu Mohammed and his comrades confronted an Egheidat businessman who sold ice -- a precious commodity in a city plagued by furnace-like heat, constant electricity outages and soaring prices for fuel to power generators.

"He was selling a block of ice for 20,000 dinars. Its actual price is 5,000 dinars," said Abu Mohammed. "When we told him he should lower the price, he slapped one of our guys. We didn't like that. So we beat him up as punishment."

Shortly afterward, unfamiliar cars started to drive toward the Egheidat section of Tobji, Abu Mohammed said. Then came the rumors: The cars were to be used for drive-by attacks or suicide bombings.

Day One

Rumors filled the streets: A BMW and a Land Cruiser were making their way along the sweltering streets of Tobji toward the green and tan Haji Zeidan mosque, run by the Egheidat. Word of the unfamiliar cars soon reached Sadr's local office, located opposite a parking lot filled with junked cars on the main road in Tobji. A group of Mahdi Army militiamen, including Abu Mohammed, headed toward the mosque. Outside, clutching their weapons, they called out to the mosque guards.

"We told them they should hand over the strange cars so that we could hand them over to the Iraqi army," Abu Mohammed recalled. "Then we came under heavy gunfire."

A battle erupted, forcing the militiamen to retreat. Two of their men were wounded. Egheidat community leaders gave a different account. They said the militiamen taunted the guards with slurs, then shot at their guard on the roof. Forty to 50 gunmen emerged firing, but only over the heads of the militiamen.

"We were on rooftops, and they were on the street. If we wanted to kill them, then none of them would have left alive," said Muhammed Jamal al-Egheidi, 40, a leader of the Egheidat tribe.

Day Two

At checkpoints, the Mahdi Army men took into custody eight Egheidat men and beat them with rubber-coated electrical cables, several Egheidat tribal leaders said. Abu Mohammed, who often did duty at the checkpoints, did not deny the men were taken, but he said they were handed over to Iraqi soldiers.

"In the streets, we set up checkpoints with the Iraqi army," he said. "I am there to serve the neighborhood. I would point people out -- only those who hurt Iraq."

That day, a group of concerned tribal elders and businessmen, both Sunnis and Shiites, met to discuss ways to stop the violence from escalating.

"They came and said this violence will never end unless we reconcile," Egheidi said. "Many of them were Shia in the neighborhood, and they knew us very well. We knew they were on our side."

The group decided to hold a tribal reconciliation gathering, a traditional mechanism used to solve conflict among Iraq's tribes. The grievances of both the Egheidat and the Mahdi Army would be addressed through negotiations and the payment of fasil , or blood money. Both sides agreed to meet the next day.

Day Three

An hour before the meeting, gunmen attacked a Mahdi Army checkpoint and killed four of its men, including Abu Mohammed's 16-year-old nephew, Omar. The Mahdi Army immediately blamed the Egheidat.

"They killed our men, and then kicked them to see if they were still alive," said Abu Mohammed. "Then they shot them in the head to make sure they were dead."

Abu Mohammed recalled that he and his men ran straight to the Egheidat area. "We opened fire on them," he said matter-of-factly. A gun battle followed. "They were shooting at us from the mosque. This is God's home. They defiled the house of God. So we shot at it with an RPG, and the minaret was hit."

The fighting raged until U.S. and Iraqi soldiers entered the fray and sealed off the neighborhood.

"The militiamen, when they saw the American army, they fled at extraordinary speed," said Abdul Sattar, who was too afraid to leave his house to go to work this day. "They jumped into houses. One woman saw one of them in her house and fainted."

Abu Mohammed described jumping into houses as a tactical move that the Mahdi Army often uses because its members know U.S. troops rarely remain long inside a neighborhood. "We didn't want to confront them," he said.

When Abu Mohammed returned to his home, enraged, he fired at the houses of his Sunni neighbors, even though they were not Egheidat. A Sunni neighbor, on hearing the gunfire, came out clutching an AK-47 assault rifle.

"I shot at him," said Abu Mohammed. "He bent down, and the bullet struck his mother in the arm. Then I walked out into the neighborhood and shouted: 'Any Sunni I see in the street is my enemy. No Sunni will stay in Tobji. The Sunnis are infidels.' " Egheidat tribal leaders denied any involvement in the attack on the checkpoint, blaming radical Sunni insurgents seeking to deepen the divisions in Tobji.

"We'll pay 10 times the amount -- not four times, as tradition dictates -- if what they are saying is true," Egheidi said, referring to blood money. The reconciliation meeting was postponed. That night and the following day, the streets lay silent.

Day Five

Fierce gun battles between the Mahdi Army and the Egheidat erupted again. Once more, U.S. and Iraqi troops entered the neighborhood, and the fighting subsided.

The tribal reconciliation meeting was held at the neighborhood municipal council office under the protection of the Iraqi army, which cordoned off the office with its tan camouflage Humvees and soldiers.

With U.S. soldiers by his side, Brig. Gen. Abdul Jaleel Kahlaiaf, commander of the Iraqi 6th Division's 1st Brigade, met with the parties. Such neighborhood reconciliation meetings, he said in an interview later, are crucial in helping to defuse Baghdad's sectarian violence. He also denied that his mostly Shiite forces were sympathetic to the Mahdi Army.

The Mahdi Army demanded that the Egheidat hand over the men who wounded their two militiamen, as well as their weapons, and pay a fasil of 4 million dinars, or $2,700, to each of the families of the wounded.

The matter of the four dead Mahdi Army militiamen was not discussed, since the identities of their killers were unknown, said Fadil Khalifa Jassam, a Sunni imam who served as one of the mediators. "There will be another tribal gathering for the four killed," he said. At the end of the meeting, the Egheidat were given time to consider the Mahdi Army's demands, and an atwa , or truce, was declared for three days.

Day Six

On the first day of the truce, Egheidi, the Sunni tribal leader, was worried. "The Mahdi Army is now going around the neighborhood saying they are going to eliminate us," he said. "We are not going to work. We're afraid we'll get captured at the checkpoints. At the market, they are not selling to Egheidat anymore. They say, 'You are terrorists.' How can we be terrorists when we stay inside our homes?"

Then he added, "How can you reconcile when you are sending people into our neighborhood to shoot us?"

The conversation turned to the U.S. troops. A year ago, Egheidi refused to accept the U.S. occupation. Now, after watching the violence in Tobji unfold, he said he has concluded that Shiite extremists are the greater enemy.

"When the Americans are in my neighborhood, I can put my head in my pillow and sleep," said Egheidi. "If they stay, there will be security. If they leave, there will not only be civil war. There will be a house-to-house war."

Day Seven

On the second day of the truce, Abu Mohammed, the Sadr militiaman, was angry. "Our wounds are still fresh," he said as he puffed on a cigarette. Coloring his language was a sense of entitlement and a belief that the U.S. occupation had ruptured the cohesiveness of the sects in his community.

"Before the entrance of the Americans, we lived like brothers," Abu Mohammed said. "They married us. We married them. Saddam's regime was unjust but he didn't create divisions. We didn't have civil war. . . . The American intention is to dismember Islam."

His thoughts soon turned back to Tobji, and his nephew Omar. He wanted the Egheidat to leave. "We will not take their houses by force," he said. "They will sell them and buy in other areas. The important thing is they get out of my neighborhood."

At 4 p.m., the normally busy streets lay quiet.

Day Eight

At 10 a.m., the Mahdi Army and the Egheidat reached an agreement. The Egheidat would hand over some weapons to the Mahdi Army and pay the fasil. Each side would stay out of the other's section of Tobji in order not to inflame tensions. All sides hugged and congratulated, Jassam recalled. It seemed as if the Tobji they knew had united. "Even up to this moment, we still have feelings of brotherhood," said Amar Ali, a trader.

"It was a success," said Kahlaiaf, the Iraqi army commander. Sunni and Shiite mosques in Tobji announced the news over loudspeakers. Egheidat residents came out of their homes and handed out sweets and juice to their neighbors. Then "they brought a truckload of ice cubes and distributed to the people -- for free," said Ali Laith, 19, a tall, slim student. Later in the day, shops reopened and residents ventured onto the streets.

But at 7:55 p.m., a mortar shell struck the parking lot with the battered old cars less than 100 yards from the Sadr office. It landed on a rusting Volkswagen Passat, witnesses said, killing an elderly man and a child, and wounding others.

"There are some people who don't like for things to be quiet in Tobji," said Abu Ahmed, a shopkeeper whose store was less than 200 yards from where the shell hit. He asked that his full name not be used because of the potential for more violence.

That night, six Egheidat elders visited the Mahdi Army's representatives to assure them they were not behind the attack.

Day Nine

At 10:40 a.m., Nabil Ibrahim was open for business. Two women in black abayas and a girl were in his store. Did he think Tobji would slide back into violence?

"It's in God's hands, inshallah ," Ibrahim said. As he spoke, Haidar Muhammad Latif, 22, entered the store. He was short, with close-cropped hair, and wore a blue shirt. And he soon revealed his allegiance: "We are from Sayyid Moqtada Sadr's army," he said, using an honorific for the cleric.

He asserted that the mortar attack had targeted the militia and proclaimed "God is great" because the mortar did not hit the Sadr office. Asked who was behind the attack, he answered without hesitation. "I expect it was the Egheidat who did it," he said. "I wish I could trust them."

Two blocks away, a funeral tent was erected next to the parking lot.

Day 10

On this day, Abu Mohammed, still angry, was thinking about revenge. He, too, believed the Egheidat had fired the mortar two days before. But now he had a more pressing goal. He said he and his comrades had identified three Sunnis, including one Egheidat, who they believed were involved in the killings of the four members of the Mahdi Army, including his nephew. Now, he said, he was planning to create a death squad to carry out the justice the tribal negotiations didn't bring.

Asked how he knew the three men were guilty, Abu Mohammed said witnesses told him that the men were inside one of the cars that rushed the checkpoint. "We only take blood for blood," he said.

Asked if the three men lived in Tobji, Abu Mohammed replied: "Yes, they are our neighbors. Now their houses are empty, and they have fled."

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