A civil war between Sunni and Shia is spreading rapidly through central Iraq with each community seeking revenge for the latest massacre. A suicide bomber driving a van packed with explosives blew himself up yesterday outside the golden-domed mosque in Kufa yesterday killing at least 59 and injuring 132 Shia.
In the last ten days, while the world has been absorbed by the war in Lebanon, sectarian massacres have started to take place on an almost daily basis leading observers to fear a level of killing approaching that of Rwanda immediately before the genocide of 1994. On one single spot on the west bank of the Tigris river in north Baghdad between 10 and 12 bodies have been drifting ashore every day.
In Kufa, a city on the Euphrates south of Baghdad, the suicide bomber drove his vehicle into a dusty square 100 yards from a Shia shrine at 7.30am. He knew that poor day laborers gathered there looking for work. He said “I need labourers” and they clambered into his van which exploded a few moments later killing them and other workers standing around. “Four of my cousins were killed,” said Nasir Feisal, who survived the blast. “They were standing beside the van. Their bodies were scattered far apart by the blast.
The dramatic escalation in sectarian killings started on July 9 when black-clad Shia militiamen sealed off the largely Sunni al-Jihad district in west Baghdad and slaughtered every Sunni they identified, killing over 40 of them after glancing at their identity cards. Since then there has been a tit-for-tat massacre almost every day. On Monday gunmen, almost certainly Sunni, first attacked Shia mourners at a funeral near Mahmoudiya, a market town of 100,00 people 75 miles north of Kufa. They then shot down another 50 people in the local market.
The failure of the newly formed government of Nouri al-Maliki to stop the mass killings has rapidly discredited it. The Shia and Sunni militias – in the latter case the insurgents fighting the Americans – are becoming stronger as people look to them for protection. After the explosion in Kufa angry crowds hurled stones at the police demanding that the militiamen of the Mehdi Army, followers of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, take over security in the city. “We want the Mehdi Army to protect us,” screamed a woman in a black abaya robe. “We want Muqtada’s army to protect us.” Other people chanted at the police, who began to fire in the air to disperse them, “you are traitors!” and “American agents!”
In much of Baghdad the militias have taken over and are killing or driving out the minority community. It has become very easy to get killed anywhere in central Iraq, where one third of the 27 million population live, through belonging to the wrong sect. Many people carry two sets of identity papers, one forged at a cost of about $60, so they can claim to be a Sunni at Sunni checkpoints and Shia at Shia checkpoints.
Even this may not be enough to stay alive. Aware of the number of forged identity papers being used Mehdi Army checkpoints in the largely Shia Shu’ala district in west Baghdad have started to ask drivers questions about Shia theology to which a Sunni would not know the answer. One man, who was indeed a Shia, passed the test but was still executed because he was driving a car with number plates from Anbar, a wholly Sunni province.
While the White House and Downing Street still refuse to use the phrase ‘civil war’ Iraqis in the centre of the country have no doubt what is happening. Baghdad mortuary alone received 1,595 bodies in June. It has got worse since then. Many people are fleeing. On one day early this month at al-Salhai bus station in central Baghdad there were 23 buses, each carrying 49 people as well as 30 four wheel drive vehicles, all departing for Syria carrying refugees. Access to Jordan has become more difficult with many Iraqis turned back at the border. All buses have Sunni drivers these days since five Shia drivers were killed as ‘spies’ driving through the Sunni heart lands of western Iraq on their way to Jordan and Syria.