Middle East

Surging violence, sectarian fears in Iraq

Workers inspect their destroyed restaurant after a parked car bomb exploded near the popular restaurant in the Ur neighborhood in northern Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, May 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

BAGHDAD: Two months of bombings that have killed more than a thousand Iraqis has not, officials insist, been enough to tip the country back into the all-out communal blood-letting of a few years ago.

But such assurances do not impress anxious Baghdadis like Atheer, a delivery driver, who has started restricting his movements again for fear of sectarian death squads.

Fanned by the war in Syria, the surge in attacks has been blamed by government officials on Iraqi Sunni Muslim militants, some of whom are allied to Syria’s Islamist rebels.

“I’ve stopped going to some places, some Sunni areas, because I don’t feel safe there any more, because I’m a Shiite,” 21-year-old Atheer said, not wishing to use his full name. “Not since 2008 have we heard of things like this.”

At least 26 more people were killed early Thursday in Baghdad, a day after bombings claimed nearly 30 more lives in the capital in the kind of violence that has blighted lives and left the economy of one of the world’s most oil-rich states in ruins.

Since April, at least 1,100 people have died, more than 700 of them last month alone, according to the United Nations, making it the bloodiest month in nearly five years, let alone since U.S. troops ended an eight-year occupation in late 2011.

However, April’s slaughter was barely a quarter of the death toll at the peak of the killing in 2006 and 2007 when 3,000 or more were dying every month, and officials in the Shiite-led administration say the situation is still not as bad as before.

Pinning blame on militants among the Sunni minority who dominated Iraq before the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, the officials say Shiite militias have yet to hit back as they did in 2006 – but warn that if they do, life could be grim indeed.

“For now, there is no sign suggesting the Shiite militias are responding,” one senior intelligence official told Reuters. “But if these attacks increase, we could go back to 2006.”

A particular concern among Baghdad officials is the prospect of a Sunni Islamist state in Syria, where Iraqi fighters have engaged on both sides of a civil war that reflects a broader regional confrontation pitting Sunnis and Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, against Shiites backed by non-Arab, Shiite Iran.

In Iraq, militants echo widespread Sunni discontent with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite many see as too close to Iran and Syrian President Bashar Assad; their bombs and shootings have hit not just Iraqi troops and police, but Shiite mosques, cafes and markets, from north to south.

Maliki, who has struggled to keep Sunnis inside his power-sharing government, has pitted the security forces against Sunni militants. Dozens of deaths last month after an army raid on a Sunni protest camp near Kirkuk sparked a new wave of violence.

Government security officials say they do not believe major Shiite militias, notably the Mehdi Army, Asaib al-Haq and Kataeb Hizballah, are joining the fight inside Iraq, even if some are sending fighters to Syria to battle Sunni rebels there.

Yet Sunni targets in Iraq have also been bombed, including mosques, and Shiite militia leaders say they are preparing to fight. There are signs some of their units are flexing their muscles. Shiite militants, albeit unarmed, patrolled streets Monday in one Baghdad district after a series of bombings there.

And in a flashback to a time when such militias ruled parts of the capital, officials blamed Shiite gunmen this month for attacking liquor stores and for killing a group of prostitutes.

Yet security officials name their main adversaries as the Naqshbandi army, associated with Sunni officers once close to Saddam, and the Islamic State of Iraq, Iraq’s wing of Al-Qaeda.

The absence of U.S. troops has offered them more scope. There were up to 170,000 Americans in Iraq in 2007 during a “surge” to stifle civil war after the bombing of a major Shiite shrine in February 2006 sparked retaliation by Shiite militias and a balkanization of cities into sectarian zones.

While Maliki has an army and police force numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the U.S. departure has deprived them of much air support and intelligence capabilities. Benefiting from Sunni rebel-held territory across the Syrian border, and from deepening frustration with the government among the wider Iraqi Sunni population, the militants have shown their reach.

In the last few weeks, almost simultaneous bombings have hit northern towns like Kirkuk and Mosul and even the Shiite stronghold of Basra, the Gulf oil hub in the south.

Yet differences with the past may limit the instability.

For one, Sunni, Shiite and ethnic Kurdish and other communities are more separated, a result of the millions fleeing in previous years to more homogeneous towns and neighborhoods.

And while Sunnis remain as divided among militants and moderates as before, Shiites – perhaps 60 percent of the 36 million Iraqis, now have a more united leadership around Maliki, in control of a better armed military and less likely to turn to the chaotic militia bands who fought the last time around.

“We’ve moved away from the dynamics of the past, which supported a more devastating civil war, to one of on-and-off clashes between the Shiite government forces and the Sunni periphery,” said Ramzy Mardini, at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut.

Further ahead, however, much depends on Syria. Signaling their regional intent, Al-Qaeda in Iraq earlier this year proclaimed an alliance with Syria’s Islamist Nusra Front.

Should Assad fall, Shiite Iraqi officials fear the rise of a hostile, hard-line Sunni government. Their nightmare scenario is Sunni Islamist guerrillas flooding back across the border.

Those regional concerns mean little to Iraqis faced by daily violence. Aside from the bombings, particular fear is spread by talk, especially among Sunnis in Baghdad, of a return of death squads and kidnap gangs operating under cover of official uniforms.

One man, who insisted on anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said his brother, a 24-year-old Baghdad Sunni called Nassir, was killed this week after what a work colleague told the family was a kidnap by Shiite gunmen in Baghdad. “There was a false checkpoint and he was taken there,” the man said. The next the family knew of Nassir, they had a call to check the morgue.

A senior police official denied this week that sectarian militias were setting up fake checkpoints to snatch victims from rival communities – a rumor he put down to legitimate police units working in plain clothes. But many in the capital are not reassured and shops have begun shutting up early in some areas close to religious fault lines as staff hurry home before dark.

“If we go back to that time, life will come to a halt,” said Umm Ali, a housewife living in a Baghdad neighborhood that is still home to both Shiites and Sunnis.

“We won’t be able to do anything.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 31, 2013, on page 9.




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