In Balad, Age-Old Ties Were 'Destroyed in a Second'

Over the weekend, workers at a hospital morgue in Tikrit unloaded bodies of people killed over the four days of sectarian violence in and around Balad.
Over the weekend, workers at a hospital morgue in Tikrit unloaded bodies of people killed over the four days of sectarian violence in and around Balad. (By Bassim Daham -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 23, 2006

OUTSIDE BALAD, Iraq -- At midweek, Shiite Interior Ministry commandos and their Shiite militia allies cruised the four-lane hardtop outside the besieged city of Balad, trying to stave off retaliation for a deadly four-day rampage in which they had all but emptied Balad of Sunnis.

Sunni insurgents pouring in to take that revenge patrolled the same highway, driving battered white pickups and minivans, their guns stashed out of sight. Affecting casualness, more Sunni men gathered on rooftops or clustered on the reed-lined edge of the highway, keeping an eye on the Shiite forces and the few frightened civilians who dared to travel the highway past Balad.

What brought this Tigris River city north of Baghdad to this state of siege was a series of events that have displayed in miniature the factors drawing the entire country into a sectarian bloodbath: Retaliatory violence between Sunnis and Shiites has soared to its highest level of the war, increasingly forcing moderates on both sides to look to armed extremists for protection.

The Shiite-led government's security forces, trained by the United States, proved immediately incapable of dealing with the sectarian violence in Balad, or, in many cases, abetted it, residents and police said.

More than 20,000 U.S. troops are based within 15 miles of Balad, but, uncertain how to respond, they hesitated, waiting for Iraqi government forces to step up, according to residents, police and U.S. military officials.

And all that was left holding Balad, and Iraq, together -- the desire for peace and normality still held by the great majority of Iraqis, and the generations of intermarriage and neighborliness between ordinary Shiite and Sunni Muslims -- was ripping apart.

"The people of Balad should not kill the Sunnis who are among them," said one slightly built Shiite man, fleeing his home on the outskirts of Balad. He and 13 women and children of his family were crammed into a single, battered Toyota sedan, stranded by a flat tire near the highway turnoff to the city. "Our relations are not of months or years. It's since the beginning of time," he said. "This relationship has been destroyed in a second."

The principals involved give a straightforward timeline of how that happened.

The trigger event, U.S. and Iraqi officials said, was the killing of two or three Sunni men from the area earlier this month. One of the men had been a local leader of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman.

On Oct. 13, Sunni insurgents took their revenge. In Duluiyah, a Sunni hamlet four miles and across the river from Balad, insurgents kidnapped and beheaded 17 Shiite laborers who had come to work in the date palm groves there. The U.S. military later arrested two Sunni police officers from the town for alleged involvement in the deaths.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters instigated the killings, then stood by as innocent Sunnis were killed in the retaliation that followed, said police Maj. Hussein Alwan in Duluiyah.

Hours after the beheadings, outraged and frightened Shiite elders of Balad telephoned an office of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Kadhimiyah, a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad. Sadr leads the Mahdi Army, the most feared Shiite militia in Iraq.

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