Sunday 28 August 2016

Baghdad's divided city district on brink of chaos as return to 'bad old days' looms

Colin Freeman

Published 19/06/2014 | 02:30

Mehdi Army fighters take part in military-style training in Baghdad. Reuters
Mehdi Army fighters take part in military-style training in Baghdad. Reuters

Waving rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs, the convoy of Shia militiamen rolled down the Baghdad street, a 30-vehicle column of vans, pick-up trucks and battered saloon cars.

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Above the roar of their engines, they chanted how they were now crushing the "terrorists" of Isis, the Sunni extremists who have seized much of northern Iraq.

This particular victory parade, however, was nowhere near the front line – nor was it welcomed by those for whom it was put on.

The main battleground against the advance of Isis is currently some 50 miles north of the capital, where Shia militiamen have stepped into the breach left by the Iraqi army. But while some are busy in front-line combat, other militiamen have taken to driving through Sunni neighbourhoods of Baghdad in mass shows of force.

Their message is unspoken, but as loud and clear as the chants – any Sunni who is thinking of supporting Isis can expect Shia gunmen at his door.

"Ever since last week, not a day has gone past without them coming down the street, shouting and yelling and waving rifles and pistols," said Imad Ahmed, a shopkeeper in the Sunni district of Adel in west Baghdad.

"They say they will crush the Isis terrorists and anyone who stands in the way of the Shia, but these guys are nowhere near the front line. This is just designed to intimidate us."

Rather like Belfast's Orange parades, the militiamen have no compunction about driving through neighbourhoods already stained by past sectarian bloodshed. In Adel, fighting between Sunni gangs and Shia militiamen claimed 30 lives a month during the civil war of 2006 to 2007.

"Today they are just shouting, but who knows if tomorrow they might be killing people again," said Ali Jawad (40), another shopkeeper, as the convoy rolled down the main thoroughfare of Rabia Street.

Such comments demonstrate the growing tension in the Iraqi capital, where the panic when Isis first seized the northern city of Mosul a week ago was followed by an increasingly uneasy calm.

Traffic is back on the streets and shops are open again, with most people hoping that Isis's rapid advance on the capital has been halted.

Yet many residents are still fleeing, as demonstrated by the packed departure area at Baghdad airport, and the almost empty arrivals hall. For those who have stayed behind in former sectarian front-line districts like Adel, the fear of a return to the bad old days now looms large.

During the height of that sectarian conflict, Adel was a bomb-blasted ghost town, the streets festooned with graffiti claiming different pieces of turf belonging either to Sunni or to Shia gangs.

On the Shia side was the Mahdi Army, the Iranian-backed militia that also carried out thousands of attacks on US and British troops. On the Sunni side was a thug named "Omar the Slayer", an al-Qai'da ringleader whose grisly propaganda films showed him beheading Shia civilians.

The Shia minority had all fled Adel, with many of their homes squatted by Sunnis fleeing similar terror in Shia-majority neighbourhoods.

The American troop "surge" of 2007 succeeded partially in containing the violence, with US and Iraqi soldiers erecting concrete walls that cut off Adel from neighbouring districts. Within a year, many displaced families had come home; since then the neighbourhood has slowly returned to prosperity.

But the concrete walls remain in place. And so too do the collective memories of that dreadful time – now awakened by the return of the Shia militia convoys, many of whom still wear Mahdi Army headscarves.

While the gunmen have so far avoided direct taunting of the local Sunnis, it reminds residents of how the Mahdi Army used to drive down Rabiya Street, casually spraying the shops with gunfire.

"I was here in my shop when they did it once," said Mr Jawad. "They were shooting randomly at anyone."

Officially, the militias have been remobilised solely to tackle the threat from Isis, which sees Shias as apostates worthy only of death.

But the Mahdi Army units prowling Adel look more like an armed street rabble – unlikely to be much use against Isis, but certainly capable of making life miserable for residents.

"They look like barbarians, rough people, and some are no more than 15 years old," said Mr Ahmed.

Might the Sunni militias mobilise in Adel in response? That seems unlikely – most residents are sick of conflict and feel heavily outnumbered by the Shia militiamen and their perceived allies in the Shia-dominated Iraqi security forces, who have checkpoints and watchtowers every few hundred yards.

While locals can expect questioning, the Shia militiamen drive up and down unchallenged.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a touch of sympathy for Isis among Sunnis in Adel, with some describing its take-over of Mosul as an anti-government uprising rather than a jihadist coup.

"The government was treating Mosul's people badly, with mass arrests and no jobs, and so they just exploded," said Mr Jawad.

But even so, few want it to start an uprising in Baghdad itself on their behalf – a scenario that would bring the front line to their front door.

"The Iraqi army here do not treat us very well," said Mr Ahmed. "But to have militias on both sides would be even worse." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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