In Baghdad Neighborhood, A Tale Of Shifting Fortunes

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Wall Street Journal
October 31, 2007
Pg. 1
By Philip Shishkin
BAGHDAD -- In many neighborhoods across the Iraqi capital, Shiite Muslims have defeated their Sunni cousins in the civil war that's raged here over the past two years.
Shiites, marginalized under Saddam Hussein, have been able to seize real estate, businesses and municipal services from Sunnis. A mafia-like network of Shiite militias has engineered the takeover of entire neighborhoods. Of the 51 members on Baghdad's City Council, only one is Sunni; the police are almost entirely Shia.
The central government here says the violence is winding down, and the U.S. military points out that civilian deaths have declined recently. But a new, quieter chapter of the civil war is unfolding. Shiite groups are trying to consolidate their on-the-ground gains and push into neighborhoods that have so far eluded their control. The Sunnis, pressed into a corner, are looking for new ways to fight back. In some cases, they've joined their former American enemies as allies.
Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the city's Sayidia section, a majority-Sunni enclave where Sunnis and Shiites had lived in relative peace. While other pockets of Sunni resistance remain, this district of 30,000 has emerged as the biggest theater in the battle against Shiite militants.
In February, a white sedan swerved and flipped over in front of Riyad Obaidi's home in Sayidia. The passengers clambered out and ran. Hearing a tapping sound, Mr. Obaidi approached the car and opened the trunk. A hog-tied and terrified elderly Sunni man tumbled out.
Shiite gunmen had just killed the man's son, the captive said, and packed the father off for a bumpy ride to an almost-certain death. Mr. Obaidi, a Sunni himself, had just fled to Sayidia after Shiite militias overran his old neighborhood. Shocked by the man's story, he decided to join a local band of Sunni fighters.
"When Sunnis were displaced from other areas, Sayidia became the most important place for us," he says.
Shiite forces now control more than half of Baghdad's neighborhoods. Shiite Arabs comprise roughly 60% of Iraq's total population; the remaining 40% are split between Sunni Arabs and Kurds, plus a few smaller minority groups.
Under Saddam Hussein, Sayidia, almost 70% Sunni, was home to many ranking military officers and educated elite. Well-off professionals lived here, too. Its shopping streets were among the best in the capital. "You used to see castles, not just houses, with swimming pools. It was a very rich area," says Abu Ibrahim, a dentist who used to live there.
Karim Obaidi, Riyad Obaidi's brother and a colonel in Mr. Hussein's air force, remembers the 2003 fall of Baghdad with remorse. "It was the first time in my life that I cried," Karim recalls. The Americans disbanded the Iraqi army, and the veteran fighter pilot took off his uniform, came back home to Sayidia and joined the anti-American resistance.
Other unemployed military officers from the area joined the insurgency, but the neighborhood itself remained relatively peaceful. Sayidia still held traces of its old affluence as late as last October. Shops were open, people were trimming hedges in front of their homes, and trash was collected on time.
But all around the district, other neighborhoods were falling under the sway of Shiite militants. The broader municipal area that includes Sayidia, known as West Rashid, is home to some 800,000 residents, or about one-fifth of Baghdad's total population. American officers stationed here have watched as Shiite militias made steady inroads. "Within West Rashid, the Shia have gained a lot of neighborhoods that weren't Shia in 2003," says U.S. Army Maj. John Cross.
Reconciliation is crucial to making Iraq a functioning state -- and a key condition for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. But as Baghdad's few mixed areas yield to Shiite forces, that goal becomes harder to achieve. "If communities and their leaders can come together in mixed neighborhoods and hammer out some understandings, that's critical," says Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
Riyad Obaidi used to manage some 200 small shops in a mixed neighborhood next to Sayidia. Shopkeepers paid him rent. But when his leases came up for renewal, local Shiite militants muscled him out and told him to leave the area, he says. Around the same time, another Obaidi brother who ran a parking lot nearby was strangled with a rubber cord. Mr. Obaidi got the message and fled to Sayidia, where his brother, the colonel, lived. It was fast becoming the only safe haven for Sunnis in West Rashid.
Things weren't that way for long. Shiite militants started infiltrating Sayidia from adjacent areas under their control. According to U.S. military officials, their movements were often aided by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi police. "We were surrounded," says Omar Mohammed, a local Sunni resident.
Late last year, the Iraqi police started setting up a maze of checkpoints throughout Sayidia. Shiite militants would often be lurking nearby. Reports of kidnappings of Sunnis in the vicinity of checkpoints started piling up in the spring, according to U.S. officers and local Sunni activists.
In one recent incident, plainclothes gunmen ambushed a car carrying two Sunni political activists after police pulled them over at a checkpoint. The gunmen shot at the ground and then aimed their fire at the two Sunnis, according to an American account of the incident. The two men managed to get away with minor gunshot wounds.
Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, says the accusations that the police are working with Shiite militants are unsubstantiated. "The police forces represent the government, and the government doesn't support one side against the other," he says.
Shiite forces also targeted basic services in the neighborhood, according to U.S. military officials. Electricity lines were cut. Water delivery became erratic. Trash collectors were murdered.
Sunni shop owners were ordered to close down. Shiite gunmen raided Sunni mosques. Last month, only one of 11 mosques remained open. Sunnis started to leave Sayidia. House rents, once among the highest in Baghdad, plummeted.
But some Sunni residents also started fighting back. Mr. Obaidi, the air force colonel, joined a ragtag Sunni militia that started challenging Shiite gunmen, battling it out with them in the streets. His brother Riyad, shocked by the man he found in the trunk of the car, joined him.
"Almost every night we fought," says Riyad. Gunfire became so frequent and indiscriminate that local resident Abu Hassan observed that fronds of a palm tree in front of his house had become shredded by bullets.
Still, Shiite militants gained ground, and a new band of combatants entered the fray early this year: extremist fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq, a fundamentalist Sunni group known for slaughtering Shiites. Al-Qaeda fighters trickled into Sayidia through a neighboring enclave called Dora.
Just east of Sayidia, Dora is one of the last exclusively Sunni parts of Baghdad, and it opens out onto Sunni-controlled belts that wind along the outskirts of the Iraqi capital. Dora is home to battle-hardened Sunni militants, and gunfire aimed at American patrols crackles throughout the sprawling district.
Sayidia's desperate Sunnis were initially happy to see the new fighters, hoping they would help fend off the Shiite onslaught. "The Sunnis had no choice but to receive al-Qaeda, because nobody else was protecting them" says Mr. Ibrahim, the Sayidia dentist.
Instead, the Sunni extremists embarked on a simple but brutal strategy: kill any Shiite they could get their hands on. A peaceful Shiite population had always resided in the neighborhood. They were now targets.
Ali al-Ameri, a Shiite, lost two brothers in Sayidia's increasingly chaotic clashes. One worked as a carpenter and was gunned down in his shop. The other went to check on a malfunctioning electricity generator and disappeared. The murder rate in Sayidia went through the roof.
Sayidia's Sunnis, who initially tolerated al-Qaeda, soon realized the group had no interest in protecting them -- only a desire to kill Shiites. Far from being any sort of ally, al-Qaeda was living up to its reputation for inciting violence.
Sayidia's Sunni residents regrouped. Recruited by a major Sunni political party, some 300 Sunni fighters joined an ad-hoc police unit that would provide a counterweight to the neighborhood's Shiite-dominated cops. The Americans patrolling Sayidia, desperate for a solution, went along with the plan. They screened applicants and helped finance the unit, paying between $300 to $450 a month to each volunteer. Both Obaidi brothers passed muster and joined the force.
One morning last month, a dozen Sunni volunteers, including the Obaidi brothers, shared a checkpoint with a regular police unit. The joint watch was tense, with the Shiite police heckling the Sunni outfit. "Make sure you shave your beards, so you look like soldiers, not like men from a mosque," a Shiite officer teased a huddle of Sunni volunteers, most of whom were clean-shaven.
Local Sunnis -- who had grown so terrified of the checkpoints that many procured fake IDs with Shia-sounding names -- were happy to see Sunni volunteers on the streets.