Baghdad Braces For More Reprisals

Residents of Baghdad visit a food market in the Sadr City slum, where attacks against Shiites killed more than 200 people on Thursday.
Residents of Baghdad visit a food market in the Sadr City slum, where attacks against Shiites killed more than 200 people on Thursday. (By Karim Kadim -- Associated Press)
By Sudarsan Raghavan and Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 26, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov. 25 -- In the aftermath of one of the deadliest spasms of violence, a new level of fear and foreboding has gripped Baghdad, fueled in part by sectarian text messages and Internet sites, deepening tensions in an already divided capital.

In interviews across Baghdad on Saturday, Sunnis and Shiites said they were preparing themselves for upheaval, both violent and psychological. They viewed the bombings that killed more than 200 people Thursday in the heart of Baghdad's Shiite Muslim community of Sadr City as a trigger for more reprisal killings.

"We feel our world has become narrow, and we are being squeezed," said Karar al-Zuheari, 31, a Shiite taxi driver. "We have no place to run."

Since those attacks, quasi-armies of residents in mixed and majority-Sunni Arab neighborhoods have formed to protect their streets. Sunni Web sites are offering advice on how to kill Shiite militiamen. College students and executives pace at their homes, clutching rifles and handguns around the clock. Iraqis are posting pleas on Internet message boards to buy extra ammunition and weapons.

Despite a government-imposed curfew, Iraqis described Shiite militiamen murdering Sunnis at checkpoints, controlling neighborhoods with impunity and conspiring with Iraq's majority-Shiite police force, which the Interior Ministry controls. Other Iraqis spoke of mortar shells raining on their mosques and gun battles outside their houses, deepening their mistrust of Iraq's security forces and elected politicians.

Over the past two days, warnings have spread through messages delivered to the cellphones of Sunni Muslims. In Arabic, they read:

"Very big armed groups are being formed in Sadr City, backed up by the Interior Ministry, to kill great numbers of the citizens of Baghdad once the curfew is lifted. Spread the word among our people."

It signed off: "A reliable source."

Yet amid the fear gripping this city of 7 million, there were also signs of Iraq's famous cohesiveness, even as the sectarian divide widened. In some mixed neighborhoods, Shiites provided shelter to Sunnis targeted by Shiite militiamen, even though they risked being branded as collaborators. Others took care of Sunni children or bought groceries for Sunni neighbors who feared walking to the local market.

Outside their houses, the revenge attacks raged on. Gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms rounded up 21 men, including a 12-year-old boy, from two Shiite homes in the village of Balad Ruz, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad in Diyala province. On Saturday morning, their bodies were found, all handcuffed, blindfolded and shot to death, said Bahaa al-Sodani, a provincial police official. The attacks were in apparent retaliation for assaults by Shiite militiamen on Sunni mosques in Baghdad and Baqubah the previous day.

An Informant's Nod

"This is taking a turn for the worse," Hussam Sammaraie, a Sunni Muslim cellphone company executive, said on Saturday.

Less than two hours after car bombs, mortar shells and missiles bombarded Sadr City on Thursday, Shiite militiamen had taken over a checkpoint in front of his house in the New Baghdad neighborhood. The gunmen, clutching AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, were members of the Mahdi Army, the militia run by Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who controls Sadr City.

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