Death Squads on the Prowl; Iraq Convulsed by Fear

Irbil, Iraq.

Iraq is a country convulsed by fear. It is at its worst in Baghdad. Sectarian killings are commonplace. In the three days after the bombing of the Shia shrine in Samarra on February 22 , some 1,300 people, mostly Sunni, were picked up on the street or dragged from their cars and murdered. The dead bodies of four suspected suicide bombers were left dangling from a pylon in the Sadr City slum.

The scale of the violence is such that most of it is unreported. Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister, said yesterday that scores were dying every day. “It is unfortunate that we are in civil war. We are losing each day, as an average, 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more,” he said. “If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is.”

Unseen by the outside world, silent populations are on the move, frightened people fleeing neighborhoods where their community is in a minority for safer districts.

There is also a growing reliance on militias because of fears that police patrols or checkpoints are in reality death squads hunting for victims.

Districts where Sunni and Shia lived together for decades if not centuries are being torn apart in a few days. In the al-Amel neighbourhood in west Baghdad, for instance, the two communities lived side by side until a few days ago, though Shias were in the majority. Then the Sunni started receiving envelopes pushed under their doors with a Kalashnikov bullet inside and a letter telling them to leave immediately or be killed. It added that they must take all of their goods which they could carry immediately and only return later to sell their houses.

The reaction was immediate. The Sunni in al-Amel started barricading their streets. Several Shia families, believed to belong to the Shia party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), were murdered later the same day the threatening letters were delivered.

“The local Sunni suspected those Shias of being behind the letters,” said an informant. “Probably they called in the local resistance and asked them to kill the Sciri people.”

One effect of the escalating sectarian warfare is to strengthen the Sunni insurgency as their own community desperately looks to its defenses.

It is not as if life was not already hard enough before the latest escalation in communal violence. Three years ago, most Iraqis were glad to see the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, even if they did not like the US occupation, because they wanted normal lives. They had been living in a state of war since 1980 when the Iraqi leader invaded Iran. They then had eight years of bloody conflict followed by the invasion of Kuwait, defeat by the US-led coalition, the Shia and Kurdish uprisings of 1991 and then 12 years of UN sanctions.

Instead of improving, life in Baghdad has become far more dangerous than it was under Saddam Hussein. Every facet of daily living is affected.

In the last few days, temperatures have started to soar in Iraq and people would normally be buying summer clothes. But in the shopping district of al-Mansur last week few people were on the streets. Many shops were closed because their owners are too frightened to leave their homes.

But even staying in your own house carries problems. In the torrid heat of the Iraqi summer people are dependent on air conditioning to make life tolerable. But Baghdad gets only three or four hours of electricity a day. Almost everybody has a generator, large or small, depending on what they can afford. But the price of petrol, still heavily subsidised by the government, tripled before Christmas. One friend called Mohammed complained: “Either I wait seven or eight hours in a queue to buy the fuel or I get it on the black market. But black market fuel means that I would have to spend $7-8 a day to run my generator and I simply can’t afford that.” Mohammed added that he had just spent 10 hours, 5 am until 3pm, queuing to buy a bottle of gas which he, like most Iraqis, use for cooking.

Iraqis have been compelled to find ways of going on living even in the most testing conditions but even their resolution is beginning to weaken.

Mohammed’s brother had a job in a company selling air-conditioning units. Since this is the beginning of the summer on the Mesopotamian plain – one of the hottest places on earth – it should be a good business, but the brother has just lost his job. The company he worked for was owned by a Kurd. His life was threatened and he shut down the company before moving to Jordan with his family.

Iraqi political parties have now spent three months since the election on 15 December trying to form a government. But ask an Iraqi on the street what he wants from a new government and many reply: “What government? It never does anything for us.” Supply of electricity, clean water and sewage disposal are all down from 2003. The only improvement is in electricity supply outside Baghdad but even this is sporadic. In Kurdistan, the only peaceful part of Iraq, electrical supply is currently only a few hours a day. Everywhere there are men beside the road selling black-market petrol smuggled in from Iran. Turkey has cut off supplies of refined fuel because it has not been paid.

All Iraq is suffering, but Baghdad and the central provinces are turning into a slaughter house. Normal life has long been impossible. The symbol of post-Saddam Iraq is the blast wall, giant grey concrete blocks placed end to end to create fortifications of medieval appearance. They have come to dominate Baghdad and most other Iraqi cities. They protect US positions, police and Iraqi army posts and all government buildings. They also strangle streets leading to traffic gridlock at notorious choke points.

Some Iraqis are living better than before 2003. Teachers and government officials are earning $200 a month where they used to earn $10.

There are also Kurds and Shia inhabiting provinces north and south that they wholly dominate. But elsewhere, Iraqis live lives of chromic insecurity.

In al-Khadra, a Sunni neighbourhood in west Baghdad, for instance, the insurgents are waging two wars at the same time, one against the Americans and the other against Shia militiamen, some of whom work for the Ministry of the Interior.

Last week, Sunni guerrillas attacked a car which they claimed was carrying CIA agents in a road tunnel and killed those inside. Two days later, they ambushed a convoy of vehicles of the Badr Group, the Shia militia. Four of the militiamen were killed and petrol was poured over their bodies and set alight. Soon afterwards, a bus was spotted abandoned by a highway. At first it was thought it might contain a bomb. Instead it had a more grisly cargo, the bodies of 18 Sunni tortured and killed. In districts such as al-Khadra, the civil war has already begun.



Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).