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Sects slice up Iraq as US troops 'surge' misfires

London Observer | March 4, 2007
Peter Beaumont

Ahmad Hamad al-Tammimi used to live in the village of Quba. Before Iraq descended into sectarian war it was home to around 700 families. The vast majority were Sunnis. Tammimi, spiritual head of Diyala province's Shias and a follower of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most important religious leader, was the imam at the local mosque. He farmed groves of date palms and oranges close to the Diyala river. That was then. He has not seen his house, his farm or old mosque for close to two years.

'I get my information from a moderate Sunni family that lives in Quba,' he said. 'There is another family in my house. A Sunni family. Other people have taken over my groves. People from outside the village. Now I hear they have allowed my plants to dry up and wither.'
The Shias have left Quba, pushed out of their homes over two years of gradual, deadly ethnic cleansing that is now almost complete. Sectarian deaths are decreasing because there are few people left available to kill.

Both communities have retrenched in areas where they feel they are safe and which they can defend, sometimes with barricades and armed men. It is a process repeated across Iraq in an endless cycle of displacement that the new efforts to end sectarian violence in Baghdad seem to have done little to diminish.

Yesterday at Youssifiya, 12 miles south of the capital, six Sunni men who had received death threats for mixing with local Shias were killed in execution-style slayings. On Friday at least 14 members of the Shia-led security forces were abducted and believed killed.

The Iraqi government wants tens of thousands of families to return as part of the Baghdad Security Plan, but only a few hundred have done so, many of them to hide behind locked doors. So the cycle continues. Displaced Sunnis push out Shias, who in turn push out the Sunnis in the areas they relocate to. While more than a million have left Iraq, three million have been internally displaced. The displacement has been conducted with ruthless efficiency. A mosque will be attacked, a grenade thrown at a house, men kidnapped and killed, a few houses burnt - delivering the message to get out.

The pattern is recognised by Tammimi. Many Shias displaced from villages near his relocated to Shaab in northern Baghdad, arriving in the middle of a tit-for-tat expulsion. 'Farmers from here were displaced and went to Shaab. They try to remember their homes. I knew all the Shia families in my village. But I do not doubt displaced young men can commit acts of violence - and against the multinational forces - because they believe that the American forces' arrival is the reason for their plight.'

According to Iraq's Migration and Displacement Ministry, nearly 100,000 Iraqi families, about 500,000 individuals, have been displaced since February 2006. It is a Catch-22 situation - every problem that is addressed by US-Iraqi security policies has another in its wake. They are problems so deeply entrenched within Iraq's disastrous decline that the security plan, now in its third week, is struggling to gain a proper traction.

As the US and Iraqi forces clamp down in Baghdad - reducing violence from Shia elements by up to 40 per cent although failing to tackle Sunni bombs - it has seen both factions shift their fight out of the city to other locations.

And as weapons have been confiscated from around Baghdad, it has left some areas - like Ghazaliya, which used to be capable of defending itself from Shia gangs - more vulnerable to attack. So the violence is not eradicated but the balance of power lurches dangerously.

Outside the capital, the problems have become just as complex. In Anbar, the tribal counter-insurgency - backed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - against jihadist groups who had challenged the power of the sheikhs has spawned a vicious retaliatory war within the Sunni community which last week saw two bombings in Ramadi. In the south, too, where British generals have argued that the presence of UK troops was exacerbating the problem, the prospect of their departure has acted as an accelerator to factional violence.

If there is a metaphor for this struggle, it was one supplied at dusk on Friday evening - the sound of American artillery shelling the palm groves to Baghdad's west, dull thuds as meaningless and regular as a headache.

For the Mahdi Army, blamed for the worst of the death squad violence since the bombing of the Golden Dome at Samarra last year, the security plan operation has allowed it a period of retrenchment - its third tactical withdrawal since the invasion. On both previous occasions it emerged stronger.

'We have been ordered by Muqtada Sadr [the charismatic cleric followed by the Mahdi Army] to co-operate with the Iraqi authorities and avoid friction with the US forces while they are with Iraqi forces,' said a Mahdi squad leader from Sadr City, who is known as Ali al-Yasri.

'US and Iraqi raids launched in Sadr City are against members of the al-Mahdi who have become outlaws,' he said. 'Forty per cent of those operating under the name of the Jaish al-Mahdi - some genuine members and others who have just taken the name - are gangsters.'

'Most of those rogue leaders,' he said, had been 'purged'. 'Each unit of the Mahdi Army belongs to a Sadr Office. Those offices have an intelligence officer in them who answers directly to Muqtada al-Sadr. When a person is blacklisted, his name is sent to the chairman of the office. If the chairman is blacklisted, the office is frozen until a new chairman can be nominated.'

Much of the membership had gone to ground, he said, but remained active in defending holy places. The Mahdi Army's membership, he said, had little to fear from the Iraqi security forces due to the level of cross membership between the two. Mahdi members are still visible around the city, but their controversial religious courts have massively decreased their operations.

Yasri said: 'For this period it is about state law. At present when we arrest a suspected terrorist we hand him over to the security forces.

'Whether we will reappear as a force on Baghdad's streets depends on the success of the security plan. If the bad people are arrested and punished, then that is fine. If not,' he said grimly, 'then we will go back to the old ways.'

 
 

 

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