At sunset, Baghdad seems to empty out. The city looks barely populated. Very few people are on the streets and those who are, are making their way home before the curfew begins.
Since the Sunni Muslim extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, overran the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last week, conditions in the capital have been tense. The extremists have threatened to attack Baghdad and there has been a major mobilization of Iraqi troops and unofficial militias.
It all feels very similar to 2003, when US-led forces invaded, and in 1991, during the first Gulf War. Checkpoints fill the streets and regardless of sect or ethnicity, the common feeling among Baghdad’s inhabitants is fear. Rumours spread in the city faster than lightning.
In the very protected and secure Green Zone, home to most foreign embassies and government buildings, various different consulates and embassies are either fully or partially shutting down. Since last week, they’ve been sending employees on compulsory, unexpected leave. The embassies that are still operating have kept local employees on but sent many of their native staff home; they’ve also stopped taking visa applications.
“They gave us leave and a lot of the Western staff left,” says Muthana Abdul-Rahman, who works for one of the embassies in the Green Zone. “They told us that they think things are just going to get worse and that the embassy won’t re-open properly until this is all over. So we wrote on a piece of paper - Closed Until Further Notice - and hung it on the door.”
On Monday morning, the French Institute in Baghdad, which has carried on working the past week, finally sent a message to journalists on its mailing list saying it too was closing its doors and cancelling all activities until further notice.
The call made by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has also had a major impact on Baghdad. Al-Sistani is one of the world’s leading religious authorities. To those who follow him, he is as important as the Pope is to Catholics. And that is tens of millions of Shiite Muslims around the world. Last week al-Sistani told his followers that it was important to join the fight against ISIS – although he insisted the decision was personal and that any fighting was best conducted through official channels, like the Iraqi Army.
Thousands of young Baghdadis heeded the call and made their way to specially set up volunteering centres – the call was especially attractive to those who were unemployed or the more religious among Baghdad’s Shiite Muslim youth.
Local satellite television stations, most of them associated with Shiite Muslim political parties or other groups, broadcast interviews with volunteers who had come from Sweden, Norway and other countries. These men arrived in Baghdad and Najaf and were given weapons after registering at the volunteering centres. They would also get two weeks training before they were sent to fight ISIS in the cities occupied by the Sunni Muslim extremists.
As a result of all of the above, one of Baghdad’s most noticeable changes is the open appearance of more weapons everywhere.
Another big change is the number of checkpoints in the city – there seem to be about twice as many as before. But this time they are not staffed by Iraqi government forces. Rather, they are manned by joint forces belonging to Shiite Muslim militia, like those affiliated with the Sadr movement, the Badr movement and the more extremist League of the Righteous. When cars are stopped, the men at the checkpoint ask for identification and search the car. If there are guns in the car, the militia men don’t mind – they only ask where the car has come from and where it is going. That’s a common scene at Baghdad checkpoints now.
The price of certain food items has risen in Baghdad. Many local families have been through similar scenarios and have stocked up on staples like rice, flour, oil and sugar. Those kinds of items have already risen in price at local markets and are selling at more than double their price pre- the takeover of Mosul by ISIS.
This is mostly because ISIS has managed to interrupt the import of food supplies into the city by making roads out of town and toward the Turkish border unsafe. These roads include ones linking the capital to Mosul and Dohuk in the north, which in turn link to one of the main Iraq-Turkey border crossings, the Ibrahim al-Khalil crossing in Zakho. Usually thousands of trucks pass through that border and into Iraq.
It’s not just food prices, Baghdad resident Ali Sadoun says. He lives in the Hurriyah neighbourhood. “I bought a gas cylinder for IQD40,000 [around US$34] this week,” he says. “A week before this crisis I bought one for IQD6,000 [around US$5].”
From June 13, the Iraqi government decided to block Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Later on Internet services to Baghdad, Anbar, Karbala and a number of other Iraqi cities were cut off. The government said this was necessary because of security. However a source close to those who made the decision said the Internet and the various sites were cut off because ISIS was publishing video clips of gruesome executions and other activities and government officials decided this would negatively impact ordinary Iraqis’ state of mind.
Another major problem with social media used by Iraqis is that they were becoming platforms to fuel sectarian bias and violence. All kinds of people – from intellectuals and academics to journalists and public figures – had started to express strong opinions about the sectarian nature of the conflict in Iraq. Much to the frustration of those who consider themselves moderates, there was a lot of arguing, prejudice and obscene language.
Local journalists have been badly affected by the decision to shut down Internet services. Most of them have managed to find other ways of connecting to the Internet, and have been able to send some stories and check social media updates; most Iraqis use Facebook rather than Twitter. Some have used mobile Internet too although the cost of this is prohibitively high in Iraq.
One Baghdad journalist, Mazin Nimah, says he even hired a computer expert to stay with him while he worked, so that he could access the Internet in other ways. “But the connection was weak,” he notes. “And I couldn’t cover anything that happened at night.”
In Baghdad’s cafés, there is really only one topic of conversation: The crisis. And nobody quite knows what to think. Some Baghdadis are optimistic and say they believe the crisis must end soon. Others are pessimistic and expect worse things to come. Everything and anything seems possible and people talk about this subject day and night.
The tense atmosphere in Iraq’s capital city today is reminiscent of similar crises in the past. But there is one major and worrying difference – it feels as though sectarian tensions are running at higher levels than ever and as though they may spark an explosion at any moment, burning all before them, whether green or dry.