November 26, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Sectarian violence has turned Baghdad into a deadly jigsaw puzzle of contested neighborhoods where armed bands of Shiite and Sunni Muslims battle daily for control in fighting that is far more similar to an organized military campaign than is generally acknowledged.
For the most part, the Tigris River is still the shimmering blue line that divides Baghdad's predominantly Sunni west, the Karkh, from the majority Shiite east, the Risafa.
But over the past several months, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, often backed by government security forces, has pushed into the western side of the capital and is driving Sunnis from their homes in the east.
Sunni forces - neighborhood youths, former Baath Party members, Islamist extremists - are conducting their own purges to expand their grip on the west and defend their brethren across the river.
Residents trapped in the capital's most fiercely contested districts braced Sunday for a new wave of bloodshed when a 24-hour curfew ends Monday. Reached by telephone, they all offered the same grim assessment: Civil war has begun.
That assessment seemed bolstered by a three-pronged assault by the Mahdi Army late Sunday into the Jihad neighborhood, a western Baghdad district once the domain of athletes, diplomats and other middle-class Iraqis of both sects who relied on their lower-income neighbors, mostly Shiites, for vital supplies such as cooking gas and heating fuel.
Sunnis and Shiites traded gunfire from behind sandbags piled in front of mosques and from rooftop posts until U.S. troops entered the fray and tamped down the violence.
Fighting also has been fierce in the Hurriyah district, a one-time Sunni district where the Mahdi Army's efforts at complete segregation has been stopped only by the stubbornness of some families who'd rather face death than abandon their homes.
"I was born in this house. My father built this house," said Salah Ahmed, 34, one of the few remaining Sunnis in the area. "If we have to die here in this house, we will. But we will never leave it."
For months, the sects have traded kidnappings, gunfire and intimidation on families to flee. Last Thursday, a series of car bombings in the vast Shiite district of Sadr City killed some 200 people and injured at least that many more.
An old Iraqi love song celebrates a woman's eyes as so beautiful that "you won't find the likes of them in Karkh or Risafa." These days, both sides of the river are battlefields for sectarian supremacy.
The most violent reprisal attacks for the Sadr City blasts came in Hurriyah, a blue-collar neighborhood. Until recently, Hurriyah remained a mixed-sect neighborhood, celebrated by Iraqis as the home district of the country's best-loved singer, Kazem al-Saher, who is said to have a parent from each sect.
For the first two years after the U.S. invasion, Hurriyah was known as a hotbed for the Sunni insurgency. In 2006, however, Mahdi Army militiamen began inching into the area from Shiite districts to the northeast and northwest.
Local Sunnis, along with extremist groups, are fighting back to prevent the militia's capture of Hurriyah.
Another flashpoint area in western Baghdad is Kadhemiya, home to the landmark golden-domed shrine of a revered Shiite saint. Just across the river is Adhemiya, where the Abu Hanifa mosque houses the most important Sunni shrine in the capital.
With the Shiite shrine on the Sunni side, and the Sunni shrine on the Shiite side, fighting became so fierce that the bridge linking the neighborhoods was sealed. Now, each side pelts the other with mortars and small arms fire, and there are fears the violence could return soon to hand-to-hand combat.
Nizar Hussein, 36, is a Shiite from a mixed-sect family in Kadhemiya. Only the Shiite branch was allowed to remain in the area; the Sunnis were intimidated into leaving.
"They found a black X sign on their wall, which meant, `Leave the house,'" Hussein said. "My aunt's family tried to find out who did it, but the neighbors just told them it was best to leave the area like the other Sunnis."
Sunnis have been all but eliminated from the northwest neighborhood of Shoala, whose name means "torch" in Arabic. The Mahdi Army is in control of the area and recently renamed it "Shoalat al-Sadrein," or "Torch of the Two Sadrs," a reference to Muqtada al-Sadr's late father and another relative.
Ghazaliya is another flashpoint, where clashes Sunday killed at least four people. Bordering Shoala, Ghazaliyah is still a predominantly Sunni area that is home to Umm al-Qura Mosque, the headquarters of the militant Association of Muslim Scholars, the leading Sunni religious faction in Iraq that's accused of having close ties with the insurgency.
Another sign of the Mahdi Army's foray into western Baghdad is sporadic fighting in Mansour, once the capital's most exclusive neighborhood, but now a virtual ghost town, its shops shuttered and its well-heeled residents gone. Residents say the Mahdi Army has seized control of the former headquarters of the Baath Party and sectarian violence is rising, with at least one report of a Shiite man executed by insurgents solely because his wife was Sunni.
Further south on the Karkh side of the river, the most tense areas include Haifa Street and the two heavily mixed neighborhoods of Saidiyah and Doura. Sunni and Shiite once lived side by side in Saidiyah, but hundreds of Sunni families have fled the area, leaving entire streets dotted with "For Sale" signs.
In Saidiyah, Sunni insurgents sneak in from Doura and other districts with the help of locals, to carry out quick-hit attacks. The Mahdi Army, in turn, has dispatched militiamen from other districts to Saidiyah. The entire neighborhood is on edge, and residents anticipate heavy fighting in the coming days.
Baghdad's chief refinery and power station are in Doura, and majestic churches signaled the neighborhood's large Christian population. But most of the Christians fled months ago, leaving the area as a vicious battleground for al-Qaida-allied insurgents and the Mahdi Army. The militia has staged mass kidnappings of Sunnis, while Sunnis have dumped fliers on Shiite families ordering them to leave the area.
The southern part of Doura, which gives way to palm groves and villages on the way out of Baghdad, is a vital base of the Sunni insurgency. The two most recent high-level arrests of suspected al-Qaida operatives occurred there. And the picturesque date farms have become launching pads for rockets and mortars aimed at the U.S. and Iraqi government compound called the Green Zone.
In the Jihad district, the main road is the dividing line between a Sunni insurgent foothold and a growing Mahdi Army enclave, and in the nearby Amil district, Sunni insurgents are warning Sunni families to leave because they intend to target the neighborhood's Shiites. An 80-year-old Shiite man who gave his name as Hajj Abu Mohamed said he walks by the deserted homes of his Sunni neighbors with sadness.
"I feel emptiness in my soul. We were neighbors since 1980," he said. "They went to Ameriya, where they took over the homes of displaced Shiites."
While the eastern side of the Tigris is more solidly under Shiite control, pockets of Sunni resistance remain. There's also fighting between rival Shiite militias, with the Mahdi Army battling the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Perhaps the most explosive neighborhood east of the river is Baladiyat, which residents describe as a free-for-all for an array of factions. There's an active Sunni extremist insurgency, the Badr Brigade, the Mahdi Army, one of the capital's largest remaining Christian communities and an apartment complex filled with Palestinian refugees. Residents said the Mahdi Army's infiltration of the local police force gives the militia the upper hand to carry out attacks.
Assassinations, kidnappings and street clashes are commonplace among the Muslim factions; guards in front of barricaded churches are the most visible Christian presence.
Other restive territories on the Risafa side include Fadhil, a base for organized crime; Shaab, the gateway for Iraqis driving north into the so-called Sunni triangle; Zayuna, where the Mahdi Army recently captured the busy thoroughfare of Palestine Street; and Kamaliya, which the militia almost totally has cleansed of indigenous gypsies and a red-light district.
"I believed in what they were fighting for," said Haider Najeeb, a Shiite college student who's grown disillusioned with the Mahdi Army. "I thought they were fighting for a principle, but it turns out they have none.
"I'm afraid the civil war we have now is nothing compared to what is coming."
McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Omar Jassim, Zaineb Obeid and Laith Hammoudi contributed from Baghdad.