The first thing Said, a small contractor, did on visiting a military prison in west Baghdad was to pay a $2,000 bribe. The money went to an officer in return for a promise not to torture Said’s brother and business partner, Ali. The main payment comes later. For Ali’s release, Said will pay a further $100,000.
The brothers are Sunni, and the police commandos who arrested Ali are Shia. What happened to him explains why the US military “surge”, the dispatch of 20,000 extra troops to Iraq announced by President Bush in January, is failing to end the Sunni-Shia sectarian civil war in the capital.
The US and the Iraqi government are having some success in cultivating divisions between the fanatical partisans of al-Qa’ida in Iraq and the rest of the Sunni community. But overall, the five million Sunni community supports armed resistance to both the US and the Shia-Kurdish government.
Ali, a 40-year-old with three children, was a successful businessman before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. A member of the al-Hamdani tribe, he lived in the predominantly Sunni middle-class neighbourhood of al-Khudat in west Baghdad. After the invasion, he worked as a driver for a Western company for two years, but a bomb blast destroyed his car and seriously injured him. In 2005, one of his sons was kidnapped, and he had to pay $20,000 to get him back.
It is a grim measure of the insecurity of life in Baghdad that Ali, despite his injuries and the kidnapping, was considered by his neighbours to be doing well. He had gone back into contracting, and was making money. But 10 days ago, he was driving from his home to Karada, a Shia district in east Baghdad, when he was stopped by Interior Ministry commandos. One of them said to him: “We haven’t seen you for a long time. Where have you been?”
Ali made the mistake of telling the truth, saying that, like one million Iraqi refugees, he had been in Syria. This was enough to make him a suspected insurgent. He managed one desperate phone call on his mobile to his brother before he disappeared into the Defence Ministry prison in the Shia area of al-Khadamiyah, the jail where Saddam Hussein was executed.
Ali was luckier than most. The number of tortured bodies, often still in handcuffs, found on the streets of Baghdad is creeping up again. Shia death squads are taking revenge on the Sunni for the gigantic truck bombs that have devastated Shia markets, killing hundreds. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq has made itself unpopular in Sunni areas, less because of their anti-Shia onslaught than for killing Sunnis who are lowly government workers, such as rubbish collectors. Civilian pilots from Iraqi Airways have also been assassinated. Given that more than half the population is unemployed, most of the few available jobs are with the government.
The sealing off of whole districts with walls has had a mixed response in Sunni neighbourhoods. “It is a little safer in my district,” said Omar, a driver from al-Khadra, a Sunni district in west Baghdad. “There are fewer bodies in the streets.” His problem is rather that he does not know if the soldiers at the single entrance and exit to al-Khadra are doubling up as death squads. If he is detained, he may then be passed on to a prison where Sunnis are routinely tortured.
Even before the walls started to surround Sunni districts of the capital, few people were leaving their own neighbourhoods. Only one of the great markets that once fed and clothed Baghdad is still open after they were repeatedly targeted by bombers. Instead, small shops are springing up in side streets and gardens, where there is a greater degree of security.
President Bush’s decision to escalate the war by sending reinforcements is really more a change in tactics than a new strategy.
The Sunni rebellion that started in the summer of 2003 is too well established to be crushed. When insurgents are squeezed in one part of Baghdad, they move to another, or to a neighbouring province. The Kurds were able to destabilise Iraq for half a century despite suffering persecution and genocide, and Sunnis are well positioned to do the same.
One casualty of the new plan is the authority of the Iraqi government. The Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, announced in Egypt that the construction of a wall around the Sunni district of al-Adhamiyah would stop, but without effect. An Iraqi army spokesman simply said that the Prime Minister had been misled. The Iraqi Defence Ministry is largely under American control – one senior Iraqi army official who obeyed a direct order from Mr al-Maliki late last year found himself jailed by US forces.
The American relationship with the Iraqi government is a mixture of genuine support and contemptuous neglect. President Bush phones Mr al-Maliki once a fortnight, though government members complain the Prime Minister never passes on the contents of these conversations.
A dilemma that the US military has never resolved is that its military actions in support of Iraqi government troops against Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen affect the sectarian balance of power in Baghdad. Driving out the Mehdi Army from south Baghdad, for example, may be seen by Shias living there as opening them up to attack.
Last Monday, Iraqi government troops stormed Naaman hospital in walled-off Adhamiyah, the last hospital in east Baghdad that Sunnis still thought safe to attend. Snipers were on the roof, and all doctors and patients were ordered out or arrested, except for three in intensive care.
The troops were said to have an order from the Shia-controlled Health Ministry to close the hospital, but the Americans insisted Naaman would be reopened. Although pro-resistance Sunni websites have claimed that 82 patients had been murdered, this has been impossible to verify.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.