As Shia death squads battle radical Sunnis, talk of apocalypse fills Baghdad's streets

ADNAN R. KHAN August 14 2006


As Shia death squads battle radical Sunnis, talk of apocalypse fills Baghdad's streets

ADNAN R. KHAN August 14 2006



As Shia death squads battle radical Sunnis, talk of apocalypse fills Baghdad's streets


It wasn’t the first time Farid Esmail saw someone from his neighbourhood killed that the thought of a religious war occurred to him. The second death was more sobering, but still not enough to force his attention to apocalyptic doctrine. “But after I had buried almost 10 people I knew,” says the 41-yearold resident of Adhamiya, “all Sunnis, all from my neighbourhood, I realized what was happening.” That realization, he says, struck like a message from God: the end is near.

Adhamiya is one of Baghdad’s most dangerous districts. A Sunni stronghold that has been refuge to insurgents since the start of the Iraq war, it is a virtual no-go zone for any outsider. Adhamiya is also neighbour to Kadhimiya, a predominantly Shia neighbourhood. The two districts are connected by the Aima bridge over the Tigris River— the Saints bridge—so named because it also connects two shrines, one Sunni, the Abu Hanifah mosque, and one Shia, the Kadhimiya mosque. Abu Hanifah houses the burial site of al-Numan ibn Thabit ibn Zuta Abu Hanifah, an eighth-century Islamic scholar who founded the Hanafi school of Sunni Islamic law. In Kadhimiya lie the remains of Musa al-Kazim, a contemporary of Abu Hanifah and recognized by many Shias as the seventh imam in Shia Islam. Both are considered important holy sites, and both have been bombed, rocketed, shot up and transformed into heavily guarded compounds. The Aima bridge, once a symbol of sectarian harmony, is now a barricaded and lifeless vein where the flow of life has stopped.

This is the reality of Baghdad: two communities divided, with division turning to hatred and hatred spawning bloodshed. The

idea that a religious war is under way in Iraq sends the country’s leaders into a fit of indignation. Iraq’s religious groups have always gotten along, they say, blaming sectarian violence instead on seditionist elements hellbent on dividing Iraq as a means of collapsing the government. These leaders, of course, are mostly Shia, the dominant group in parliament and the one with the most to lose if Iraq spirals into all-out civil war.

For those with nothing left to lose, the civilians who have endured more than three years of violence, the reality remains: Sunnis are murdering Shias, and Shias are slaughtering Sunnis in what now appears to be an endless cycle of religious violence. For many of these people, from both sects, apocalyptic prophecies are much closer to the truth.

“We are losing hope. Our only salvation now is the Mahdi,” says Esmail, referring to a divinely guided Muslim foretold in prophecies who will unite Islam and bring peace throughout the world. The brutal irony is, both Sunnis and Shias believe the Mahdi will usher in the Day of Judgment. The problem lies in who the Mahdi will be. Salafi Sunnis, the radical branch of Islam adopted by groups like al-Qaeda, a growing presence in Iraq, say the Mahdi will be a great leader who will “establish a powerful Islamic state.” This would put radical Sunnis in charge of the Islamic world and usher in the Day of Judgment based on a Sunni narrative. Shias, of course, see the end of days a little differently: the Mahdi—Abu’l-Kasim Muhammad, the twelfth and last imam of the Shia faith who disappeared in the ninth century—will reappear and establish peace and Islamic dominance throughout the world, along Shia lines, naturally. Both narratives foresee a period of chaos and oppression preceding the coming of the Mahdi. And many Muslims in Iraq believe that time is now.

In Kadhimiya, at a cluster of eateries around the mosque, muted talk of the end of days dominates conversation. “The Sunnis are mur-

dering us every day,” says Ali, a restaurant worker and a member of the Mahdi Army, the Shia militia belonging to Iraq’s most radical Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. “God warned us that this would happen. He told us the world would fall into chaos before the coming of the Mahdi. We are preparing for it.” Part of that preparation has been the sudden emergence of white flags in all Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad. They flutter at every corner of every intersection, emblazoned with messages written in Arabic: “Save us from the world, the Mahdi,” “We are ready for your return,” “We welcome you, the Mahdi.” The word on the street is that the Mahdi Army put them up. For the Shias, they are a sign of hope. For the Sunnis, they’re a provocation.

“They are telling us that Shia Islam will win this war,” says Omar al Dulaimi, a Sunni resident in Adhamiya. “But how can they win when God is with the Sunnis?”

The Mahdi Army leadership is more reticent about the message it is sending. “The

flags mean exactly what they say,” says one militia leader in Sadr City, barely concealing a smile. “Peace is coming and we welcome it.” As he says this, a group of armed militiamen file through the office’s waiting area and pour onto the streets. Americans are coming into the district, one of the fighters says. Preparations are quickly made for a battle: large troughs are filled with water to help keep the fighters hydrated, snipers take positions on rooftops. But the expected American assault does not come.

“This is a war against the Americans and the Salafis,” says SheikTalal al Sa’adi, the chainsmoking imam at al-Sadr’s office in Kadhimiya. “We are not fighting all Sunnis. They are our brothers. The Salafis are a disease in Islam.”

Salafi Sunnis from around the Middle East have been flooding into Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In Adhamiya, according to Esmail, these radical insurgents now control the streets. They watch the Aima bridge and enforce their puritanical brand of Islam on local residents, most of whom are Hanafi Sunnis. Hanafi is the most liberal of the Sunni treatments of reli-


gious doctrine. Followers don’t, for example, consider blasphemy a punishable offence under civil law, unlike the Salafi movement which usually demands death for anyone accused of insulting the religion. Hanafis are also more conciliatory toward Shias, whom they consider wayward Muslims rather than heretics. “This problem didn’t exist five years ago,” says al Sa’adi, “Sunnis and Shias have married each other. Our daughters are on that side and theirs are on this side. What are we supposed to do, ask for our daughters back?” There is likely some truth to al Sa’adi’s claim that the problems between the Sunnis and

Shias of Adhamiya and Kadhimiya only started once foreign fighters brought Salafi thinking to Baghdad. The problem is, how do you tell a Hanafi from a Salafi? Shia death squads have not been so discerning: they kill Sunnis of any kind. Mahdi fighters like Ali, young and uneducated, generally do not engage their targets in theological debates to determine their sect before putting a bullet in them. The result has been blanket reprisals.

Consequently, the fiery and apocalyptic rhetoric of the Salafis is catching on, stoked by a growing sentiment among the Sunni population of Iraq that their entire community is under attack. “How do you expect us to react when Shia militias murder our brothers and sisters?” says Esmail. “Adhamiya was the paradise of Baghdad before the Shias took power and turned it into hell.”

The once vibrant market district is largely desolate. Shops are shuttered, streets empty, and buildings bear the pockmarks of a city in the throes of sectarian rage. The Abu Hanifah mosque has been mortared and bombed; its cemetery is so full that local officials are considering requisitioning an empty lot next

to it to bury more. “They mortar us from the Kadhimiya side,” says Esmail, claiming elements of the Iraqi army, dominated by Shia Arabs, are participating in the siege of his neighbourhood. “We can’t trust the army. We can’t trust the police or the government. We can only trust our own.”

And so the radical Salafi Sunnis have now claimed the role of saviours and protectors of all Sunnis throughout Iraq. “This is what they do,” says Ali, taking his mobile phone out of his pocket. He plays a video he claims was filmed clandestinely at the morgue in Baghdad’s Medical City complex. It shows

dozens of waterlogged and bloated bodies piled on top of each other. “This is what Salafis do. Every day we are pulling bodies of Shia brothers and sisters out of the Tigris River.”

Reports that the floundering Iraqi government is preparing a contingency plan to partition Baghdad into a Sunni east and Shia west suggest the hope for a unified Iraq is all but dead. Sectarian violence has already set migrations in these directions in motion: thousands of Iraqis have fled to the relative safety of their respective communal districts over the past few months. What’s more worrisome are the repercussions for the rest of Iraq and the greater Middle East.

Baghdad is just the bloodiest expression of Sunni-Shia hatred. But Shias and Sunnis have been killing and maiming each other for years in Pakistan. Leaders of the big three Sunni Arab nations, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are worried over the growing influence of Shia

Iran in the Middle East. Even in the Palestinian Authority, almost exclusively Sunni, a Shia group has emerged, sending alarm bells ringing throughout the Palestinian leadership. A Hamas official told the Jerusalem Post that the timing of the group’s formation in March of this year was “suspicious,” and likely the work of Iran or Hezbollah. Both Fatah and Hamas were concerned enough to drop leaflets in Gaza and the West Bank warning that a new group, especially a Shia one, would not be tolerated in the territories.

Sunni-led regimes like Jordan and Saudi Arabia were quick to recognize the strategic advantage of Israeli strikes in Lebanon—in the beginning of the conflict they condemned the actions of Hezbollah, a Shia movement supported by Iran. The Saudi monarchy—which is active in funding and promoting their Wahhabi style of Salafism throughout the world—has also pledged US$1.5 billion to help the Lebanese government recover from the destruction, money which will, at least in part, be used to stem the rise of Hezbollah.

In Baghdad, the aftershocks of shelling predominantly Shia communities in Lebanon have sent tremors of anger through Shia areas of the Iraqi capital, particularly in Sadr City. Muqtada al-Sadr himself has warned U.S. troops, whom he blames for Israel’s actions, that the violence in Lebanon will not be tolerated by his fighters. (The day after Sadr’s announcement, a roadside bomb killed one U.S. soldier near Sadr City.) “Sunni governments will not protect the Shias of Lebanon,” says Sa’adi. “We are a threat to them and they want to see us destroyed. Only Shias can protect Shias.” Sadly, Sunnis harbour similar sentiments toward the Shias, closing the circle of violence that grips the Iraqi capital.

The hope is that sectarian violence doesn’t spiral out of control, and become an epic battle of Islam. The reality will be shaped, at least in part, by those living through the horror of the moment. And that reality does not look promising. M