At Checkpoints in Baghdad, Disguise Is a Lifesaving Ritual

When approaching a Shiite checkpoint, Khalaf puts a photo of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on display. Some Sunnis also hang pictures of Imam Ali, the most revered saint in Shiite Islam.
When approaching a Shiite checkpoint, Khalaf puts a photo of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on display. Some Sunnis also hang pictures of Imam Ali, the most revered saint in Shiite Islam. (Sudarsan Raghavan - Twp)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 29, 2006

BAGHDAD -- Every time he drove, he feared this moment. Now, it was too late.

As Omar Ahmed neared the checkpoint, he recalled, he saw armed men dressed in black ordering passengers out of a minivan and checking their identity cards. Some were told to get back into the van. Others were taken to a Shiite mosque across the street. The gunmen clutched Glock pistols, normally used by the Iraqi police.

Ahmed, 30, was a Sunni Muslim. And he was in Shaab, a volatile, Shiite Muslim-dominated neighborhood. Questions raced through his mind: Was the mosque a base for a Shiite militia? Were the men members of a Shiite death squad?

So Ahmed set in motion a ritual that many Sunnis across a divided Baghdad now practice. He pushed in a cassette tape with Shiite religious songs and turned up the volume. He wrapped a piece of green cloth that he brought from the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, around his gearshift.

And he hung a small picture of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and the most revered Shiite saint, from his rearview mirror.

To the world outside, he was now a Shiite.

In a city riven by religion, violence and politics, fearful Sunnis and Shiites are hiding their identities to survive. Their differences -- some obvious, most subtle -- have become matters of life or death in ways never before seen in modern Iraq.

As he reached the checkpoint, Ahmed recalled, he was petrified. His wife, his mother and two small daughters were with him in their gray Honda. He pulled out his fake identity card, on which his Sunni tribal name, al-Obeidi, was changed to al-Hussein, a Shiite tribe.

"Deep inside, I was frightened," he said.

'What Is Your Sect?'

For centuries, from the Ottoman Empire to the British-installed monarchy to the republic eventually ruled by Saddam Hussein, Sunnis were the elite who got the bulk of government jobs. Shiites, in Hussein's time, were badly persecuted.

Yet in daily life hardly anyone cared about telling Sunnis and Shiites apart. It was considered rude to ask a person's sect, and it is practically impossible to discern from their looks, speech or dress. For generations, the two sects intermarried, making it difficult to differentiate them by surnames. They attended the same schools and lived in mixed neighborhoods.

Now, in the fourth year after a U.S.-led invasion toppled Hussein, a struggle for power is unfolding between Sunnis and Shiites in the political arena and in the streets of Baghdad. Since the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra in February, sectarian strife and lawlessness have escalated.


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