Baghdad starts to collapse as its people flee a life of death
By James Hider, of The Times, from Baghdad
As I hung up the phone, I wondered if I would ever see my friend Ali alive again. Ali, The Times translator for the past three years, lives in west Baghdad, an area that is now in meltdown as a bitter civil war rages between Sunni insurgents and Shia militias. It is, quite simply, out of control.
I returned to Baghdad on Monday after a break of several months, during which I too was guilty of glazing over every time I read another story of Iraqi violence. But two nights on the telephone, listening to my lost and frightened Iraqi staff facing death at any moment, persuaded me that Baghdad is now verging on total collapse.
Ali phoned me on Tuesday night, about 10.30pm. There were cars full of gunmen prowling his mixed neighbourhood, he said. He and his neighbours were frantically exchanging information, trying to identify the gunmen.
Were they the Mahdi Army, the Shia militia blamed for drilling holes in their victims’ eyes and limbs before executing them by the dozen? Or were they Sunni insurgents hunting down Shias to avenge last Sunday’s massacre, when Shia gunmen rampaged through an area called Jihad, pulling people from their cars and homes and shooting them in the streets?
Ali has a surname that could easily pass for Shia. His brother-in-law has an unmistakably Sunni name. They agreed that if they could determine that the gunmen were Shia, Ali would answer the door. If they were Sunnis, his brother-in-law would go.
Whoever didn’t answer the door would hide in the dog kennel on the roof.
Their Plan B was simpler: to dash 50 yards to their neighbours’ house — home to a dozen brothers. All Iraqi homes are awash with guns for self-defence in these merciless times. Together they would shoot it out with the gunmen — one of a dozen unsung Alamos now being fought nightly on Iraq’s blacked-out streets.
“We just have to wait and see what our fate is,” Ali told me. It was the first time in three years of bombs, battles and kidnappings that I had heard this stocky, very physical young man sounding scared, but there was nothing I could do to help.
The previous night I had had a similar conversation with my driver, a Shia who lives in another part of west Baghdad. He phoned at 11pm to say that there was a battle raging outside his house and that his family were sheltering in the windowless bathroom.
Marauding Mahdi gunmen, seeking to drive all Sunnis from the area, were fighting Sunni Mujahidin for control of a nearby strategic position. I could hear the gunfire blazing over the phone.
We phoned the US military trainer attached to Iraqi security forces in the area. He said there was nothing to be done: “There’s always shooting at night here. It’s like chasing ghosts.”
In fact the US military generally responds only to request for support from Iraqi security forces. But as many of those forces are at best turning a blind eye to the Shia death squads, and at worst colluding with them, calling the Americans is literally the last thing they do.
West Baghdad is no stranger to bombings and killings, but in the past few days all restraint has vanished in an orgy of ethnic cleansing.
Shia gunmen are seeking to drive out the once-dominant Sunni minority and the Sunnis are forming neighbourhood posses to retaliate. Mosques are being attacked. Scores of innocent civilians have been killed, their bodies left lying in the streets.
Hundreds — Sunni and Shia — are abandoning their homes. My driver said all his neighbours had now fled, their abandoned houses bullet-pocked and locked up. On a nearby mosque, competing Sunni and Shiite graffiti had been scrawled on the walls.
A senior nurse at Yarmouk hospital on the fringes of west Baghdad’s war zone said that he was close to being overwhelmed. “On Tuesday we received 35 bodies in one day, 16 from Al-Furat district alone. All of them were killed execution-style,” he said. “I thought it was the end of the city. I packed my bags at once and got ready to leave because they could storm the hospital at any moment.”
In just 24 hours before noon yesterday, as parliament convened for another emergency session, 87 bodies were brought to Baghdad city morgue, 63 of them unidentified. Since Sunday’s massacre in Jihad, more than 160 people have been killed, making a total of at least 1,600 since Iraq’s Government of national unity came to power six weeks ago. Another 2,500 have been wounded.
In early June, Nouri al-Maliki, the new Prime Minister, flooded Baghdad’s streets with tens of thousands of soldiers and police in an effort to restore order to the capital.
More recently, he announced a national reconciliation plan, which promised an amnesty to Sunni insurgents and the disbandment of Shia militias. Both initiatives are now in tatters.
“The country is sliding fast towards civil war,” Ali Adib, a Shia MP, told the Iraqi parliament this week. “Security has deteriorated in a serious and unprecedented way,” said Saadi Barzanji, a Kurdish MP.
Mr al-Maliki told parliament: “We all have a last chance to reconcile and agree among each other on avoiding conflict and blood. If we fail, God knows what the fate of Iraq will be.”
Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, described Baghdad after a recent visit as a city in the throes of “nascent civil war”.
Most Iraqis believe that it is already here. “There is a campaign to eradicate all Sunnis from Baghdad,” said Sheikh Omar al-Jebouri, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni parliamentary group. He said that it was organised by the Shia-dominated Interior Ministry and its police special commandos, with Shia militias, and aimed to destroy Mr al-Maliki’s plans to rebuild Iraq’s security forces along national, rather than sectarian, lines.
Ahmed Abu Mustafa, a resident of the Sunni district of Amariyah in western Baghdad, was stunned to see two police car pick-ups speed up to his local mosque with cars full of gunmen on Tuesday evening and open fire on it with their government-issued machineguns.
Immediately, Sunni gunmen materialised from side streets and a battle started. “I’d heard about this happening but this was the first time I’d seen police shooting at a mosque,” he said. “I was amazed by how quickly the local gunmen deployed. I ran for my life.”
Yesterday, General George Casey, the most senior US commander in Iraq, said that the US might deploy more American troops in Baghdad. He said that al-Qaeda, to show that it was still relevant, had stepped up its attacks in Baghdad following the killing last month of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. “What we are seeing now as a counter to that is death squads, primarily from Shia extremist groups, that are retaliating against civilians.”
A local journalist told me bitterly this week that Iraqis find it ironic that Saddam Hussein is on trial for killing 148 people 24 years ago, while militias loyal to political parties now in government kill that many people every few days. But it is not an irony that anyone here has time to laugh about. They are too busy packing their bags and wondering how they can get out alive.
My driver and his extended family are now refugees living in The Times offices in central Baghdad.
Ali is also trying to persuade his stubborn family to leave home and move into our hotel.
Those that can are leaving the country. At Baghdad airport, throngs of Iraqis jostle for places on the flights out — testimony to the breakdown in Iraqi society.
One woman said that she and her three children were fleeing Mansour, once the most stylish part of the capital. “Every day there is fighting and killing,” she said as she boarded a plane for Damascus in Syria to sit out the horrors of Baghdad.
A neurologist, who was heading to Jordan with his wife, said that he would seek work abroad and hoped that he would never have to return. “We were so happy on April 9, 2003 when the Americans came. But I’ve given up. Iraq isn’t ready for democracy,” he said, sitting in a chair with a view of the airport runway.
Fares al-Mufti, an official with the Iraqi Airways booking office, told The Times that the national carrier had had to lay on an extra flight a day, all fully booked. Flights to Damascus have gone up from three a week to eight to cope with the panicked exodus.
Muhammad al-Ani, who runs fleets of Suburban cars to Jordan, said that the service to Amman was so oversubscribed that that prices had rocketed from $200 (£108) to $750 per trip in the past two weeks.
Despite the huge risks of driving through the Sunni Triangle, the number of buses to Jordan has mushroomed from 2 a day to as many as 40 or 50.
Abu Ahmed, a Sunni who was leaving Ghazaliya with his family and belongings, said that he was ready to pay the exorbitant prices being charged because his wife had received a death threat at the hospital in a Shia area where she worked.
“We can’t cope, we have to take the children out for a while,” he said.
In one of the few comprehensive surveys of how many Iraqis have fled their country since the US invasion, the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants said last month that there were 644,500 refugees in Syria and Jordan in 2005 — about 2.5 per cent of Iraq’s population. In total, 889,000 Iraqis had moved abroad, creating “the biggest new flow of refugees in the world”, according to Lavinia Limon, the committee’s president.
And the exodus may only just be starting.