A cruel and bloody civil war has started in Baghdad. A trio of suicide bombers disguised as women, explosives strapped to their bodies hidden by long black cloaks, killed 74 people and wounded over on Friday when they blew themselves up in a Shi’ite mosque in the capital.
One bomber came through the women’s security checkpoint at the Buratha mosque in northern Baghdad and detonated explosives just as worshippers were leaving at the end of Friday prayers. Two other bombers then took advantage of the confusion to blow themselves up a few seconds later killing survivors who were trying to escape from the mosque.
The savage attack, the worst for months, came almost exactly on the third anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by American and British armies on April 9, 2003. The war was portrayed at the time as freeing Iraqis from fear but Iraqi officials have told me that at least 100 people are being killed in and around Baghdad every day.
The slaughter of Shi’ites in the Buratha mosque will probably lead to revenge attacks against Sunni Arabs whose community harbors the Salafi and Jihadi fanatics who see Shia as heretics, as worthy of death as Iraqi Christians or American or British soldiers. Ever since the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Sammara on 22 February the Shia militias have retaliated whenever Shi’ites are killed.
The bombing of the mosque, a religious complex linked to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, pushes Iraq further down the road to outright civil war between Sunni and Shia Arabs. Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, the preacher in the Buratha mosque, declared: “The Shi’ites are the target and it’s a sectarian act. There is nothing to justify this act but black sectarian hatred.”
Men screamed in anger and fear as they rolled the bodies of the dead onto wooden carts so they could be loaded into ambulances and white pick-up trucks. “This is a cowardly act. Every time I see these bloody scenes it tears apart my heart,” said a fireman called Jawwad Kathim.
It was the worst sectarian bombing for four months. The day before a car bomb exploded near the Shi’ite shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf killing 13 people. “My house is opposite to the mosque and when we heard the first huge blast I ran to make sure that my father, who was praying there, was safe,” said Naba Mohsin. “When I entered the mosque a second huge blast occurred and I saw a big blast with flames. I want to know if my father is alive.”
I have been covering the war in Iraq ever since it began three years ago and I have never seen the situation so grim. I was in the northern city of Mosul last week protected by 3,000 Kurdish soldiers, but even so it was considered too dangerous to send out heavily armed patrols in day time. It is safer at night because of a rigorously enforced curfew. In March alone the US military said 1,313 people were killed in sectarian attacks. Many bodies, buried in pits or thrown in the rivers, are never found. The real figure is probably twice as high. All over the country people are on the move as Sunni and Shi’ites flee each other’s areas.
I was in Lebanon at the start of the civil war there in 1975. Baghdad today resembles Beirut then. People are being hauled from their cars and murdered solely because of their religious identity. A friend called to say that he had a problem because his two half brothers had been born in Fallujah, the Sunni Muslim stronghold, and this was on their identity cards. If they were picked up by Shiah militiamen or Interior Ministry troops a glance at their place of birth alone could get them killed.
Fleeing one danger in Baghdad it is easy to become victim of another. The same friend had taken his mother and two sisters to the passport office in central Baghdad so they could leave the country. While they were there a large bomb went off killing 25 policemen outside and breaking his sister’s leg. Now the family cannot leave the country because his sister is in hospital and his mother is too frightened to return to the passport office to get a new passport.
President George W. Bush and Tony Blair have for the last three years continually understated the gravity of what is taking place in Iraq. It has been frustrating as a journalist to hear them claim that much of Iraq is peaceful when we could not prove them wrong without being killed or kidnapped. The capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the handover of sovereignty in 2004, the elections and new constitution in 2005 have all been spuriously oversold to the outside world as signs of progress.
The formation of national unity government in Iraq is now being presented as an antidote to the present surge in violence. “Terrorists love a vacuum”, said the Defence Secretary John Reid yesterday citing his experience in Northern Ireland. But one Iraqi official remarked caustically that the three main communites the Sunni, Shia and Kurds — do not “hate each other because they do not have a government, but rather they do not have a government because they already hate each other.”
The coalition of Iraqi religious parties called the United Iraqi Alliance won almost half the seats in the 275-member parliament in the election on 15 December last year. They now fear that the US and Britain are trying to break up the Shia coalition and deny them the fruits of their electoral victory. This is why they have resisted demands, open and covert, from Washington and London for Ibrahim al-Jaafari to stand down as prime minister.
Even if a national unity government is formed it will control very little outside the Green Zone. The army and police take their orders from the leaders of their own communities and not from the government. The militias are getting stronger and not weaker because Shia and Sunni want to be defended by people they know.
Three years ago, when the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously toppled in central Baghdad were promised that their lives would get better. Instead Iraq has become the most dangerous place in the world.