Iraqis queue at a Baghdad checkpoint. Some locals say new security measures like this are worsening sectarian conflict.
The Shiite Muslim family headed by local man, Abbas, lives in Sadr City, in Baghdad. Recently the family members have been watching TV news reports all about death, violence, murder, kidnapping and internal displacement in their country. Not that far away in the mainly Sunni Muslim neighbourhood of Saidiya, in southern Baghdad, the Sunni Muslim family headed by Mohammed, has been watching the same reports.
And despite their sectarian and social differences, the two families share one fear: that a sectarian conflict is about to start in Iraq again.
Both families have as much reason to fear this as any other Iraqi: A member of Abbas’ family was killed during the last round of sectarian violence when the family was living in the mostly Sunni Muslim area of Amiriya. Meanwhile Mohammed’s brother was kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in 2006 – they still don’t know what happened to him but can only assume he was killed.
And Baghdadis in particular know about the signs of sectarian conflict. When violence erupted between 2006 and 2008 between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims, Baghdad was at the centre of much of the unrest because of the variety of different sects and ethnicities resident here.
For months now, Iraq has been being tormented by a wave of carefully coordinated bombs and terrorist attacks. Security forces appear to have been unable to stop these – recently one even went off in the mostly peaceful, semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. But although these events are clearly frightening and they terrorize the population, most locals have not believed they were leading to the start of a new sectarian conflict.
“Because these car bombs hit Sunni, Shiite, Turkmen and Shabak people and they make no distinction,” explains Ibrahim Hassan, a Baghdad academic at Mustansiriya University. “So although the car bombs make us fearful they cannot provoke sectarianism. However,” the professor added, “we are now seeing signs that do indicate sectarian conflict may be about to begin again.”
Some of the factors that Hassan is talking about include rumours of the return of various Shiite Muslim militias in Baghdad and other cities, as well as the return of armed groups affiliated to the Sunni Muslim terror group, Al Qaeda. The latter has been active in the Syrian conflict and has experienced a resurgence. The former were groups like the Mahdi army, which was the armed militia of the Sadrist movement.
“Al Qaeda has returned to Iraq and they are coming from Syria and from places like Anbar and Ninawa in Iraq,” one Shiite Muslim MP told NIQASH. And while he said this, another Sunni Muslim MP, said that armed Shiite Muslim militias, supported, he said, by Iran, had also returned to the streets.
Statements made by Shiite Muslim MP, Adnan al-Shahmani, who is part of the State of Law bloc too, at a press conference on Sept. 28 were also alarming to many. Al-Shahmani called upon young Iraqis to prepare to form special committees to protect Shiite Muslims who lived in Sunni Muslim areas.
“If adequate measures are not taken by the government to protect Shiites, we will not stand idly by,” he said in Baghdad.
It was between 2006 and 2008 that these militias – from opposing Shiite and Sunni Muslim sides – entered into open battles in residential neighbourhoods. It was also during this time that any Shiites living in Sunni Muslim areas fled to Shiite-majority suburbs - and vice versa.
Two weeks ago, something similar began to happen as Sunni Muslims started to leave the mostly Shiite Muslim areas of Basra, Dhi Qar and Babel. Meanwhile Shiite Muslim and Shabak families were leaving the mostly Sunni Muslim area in and around Mosul.
“Gunmen threatened our families,” Hamid al-Sadoun, a Sunni Muslim tribal leader in southern Iraq told NIQASH. “The news of the threats spread and it had a big impact; a lot of people decided to leave and head north in a hurry.”
Another thing that happened during sectarian violence between 2006 and 2008 was the erection of security walls and huge concrete barriers to separate the Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim neighbourhoods in Baghdad. Effectively neighbours were walled off from one another.
Many suggest that a version of this has been happening recently with much tougher checkpoints being set up at the entrances to some neighbourhoods in Baghdad; locals could only come and go if they had the right permit and could prove they lived there.
The spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, Saad Maan, told NIQASH that these new measures were introduced to protect people living in the affected neighbourhoods because car bombers usually came from outside. However Baghdad locals, who are not happy with the measures, say all they are doing is strengthening sectarianism and separating different Baghdadis from one another.
Another frightening harbinger: security and medical sources confirmed that the phenomenon of unidentified corpses being thrown onto Baghdad’s streets has returned to the capital. This used to happen often during the sectarian violence between 2006 and 2008. And recently a number of bodies, blindfolded, hands tied together, were found on Baghdad’s streets again.
This was reminiscent of the bad old days when just being either Shiite or Sunni could see you killed if you wandered into the wrong neighbourhood or ran into the wrong militia.
“The situation these days is really scary,” says Baqir al-Mahmadawi, who lives in the mostly Shiite Muslim area of Abu Dasheer in Baghdad. I’ve heard stories about how people are getting killed because of their religious identity again. So I always avoid going into the Sunni Muslim areas unless it’s really necessary.”
In the past in Baghdad, people were killed because of what their identity cards said – either because their names were obviously either Shiite or Sunni, or because the card gave their religious sect.
Omar Ghazi, who lives in the university district in west Baghdad, has gone back to a method he used to use between 2006 and 2008, carrying an extra, false identity card that has a name that doesn’t have any overt sectarian affiliation.
“In most cases, that was enough to get me through any militias or insurgent groups,” he explains.
And Iraqis feel they can hardly expect help from their politicians. The Iraqi Parliament is fractured and there’s no consensus, even among political groups who have the same sectarian background.
“We’re still alive by accident,” another local on the street, Haj Karim Mahmoud, told NIQASH, commenting on what was going on in Baghdad today. “We walk in the streets and we have no idea whether a car bomb is about to go off and kill us. I only hope that we don’t repeat our past mistakes. We all suffered during the sectarian violence, everyone lost there. When in fact, we are all brothers and we all belong to one nation: Iraq.”