Nowhere to Hide

Patrick Cockburn

Baghdad is now effectively a dozen different cities; they are all at war. On walls there are slogans in black paint saying ‘Death to Spies’. A Shia caught in a Sunni district will be killed and vice versa. Each side has its checkpoints: armed men in civilian clothes demand identity cards from drivers, and wave to one side those they suspect of being of the opposite religion; these people are then interrogated, tortured and killed. The checkpoints are difficult to avoid: they spring up without advance warning. Between thirty and fifty bodies, often mutilated, are picked up by the police every day.

Sunni and Shia use different methods. The Sunni are behind the car bombings and suicide bombings of Shia areas, targeting markets and religious processions to cause maximum casualties. On 3 February a man drove a truck into the vegetable market in the Shia district of Sadriya: he told local militiamen he was delivering cooking oil, cans of food and sacks of flour. Once in the market he detonated a ton of explosives hidden in the back of the lorry, killing 135 people and injuring 305 more. It was the deadliest single bomb since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. According to the UN, 3000 people are murdered, mostly for sectarian reasons, in Iraq every month.

The Shia retaliate by opening more checkpoints and killing any Sunni they can identify. So many people now carry false identity papers to conceal their sectarian background that some of the guards manning the posts carry a list of theological questions which a Sunni would not be able to answer. The Shia, who effectively control the police commandos and many Baghdad police units, are in a better position than the Sunni to set up checkpoints. An official police checkpoint is often no more than a death squad in uniform. A friend of mine from the entirely Sunni al-Khadra district in west Baghdad told me: ‘The police commandos on the main highway running past al-Khadra are all Shia from the south. If they find anybody with a Sunni name like “Othman” they will kill him. They arrested one of my cousins and accused him of being an insurgent. When he denied it they said, “Well, you are a Sunni so you support them,” and tortured him anyway with beatings and electricity.’

The Shia are on the offensive. They are the majority in Baghdad and control more territory than the Sunni. Adhamiyah, now the only solidly Sunni neighbourhood on the east side of the Tigris, is under regular mortar attack by Shia militiamen. As areas with mixed populations have disappeared each side has felt able to use heavy mortars against the other, safe in the knowledge that they will not hit members of their own community. Those who fire the mortars don’t seem to care what they hit so long as it is in a district belonging to the opposing side. On 28 January, in the Sunni district of Adil in west Baghdad, two mortar bombs exploded in the courtyard of a girls’ secondary school, killing five children and wounding 21. A 15-year-old who was hit in the legs described watching her friend Maha bleed to death. ‘The shrapnel hit her in the eyes,’ Ban Ismet said, ‘and there was blood all over her face.’ Atrocities like this provoke little reaction in Baghdad these days. A Sunni friend of mine remarked, without much interest or surprise: ‘They were probably aiming for the mosque next to the school.’ Adil is under attack by the Shia militiamen of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army; they now hold Hurriyah, which used to be a mixed district.

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