Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rise In Deadly Attacks On Shiites In Iraq Stirs Anger At Government

New York Times
September 28, 2013
Pg. 4

By Tim Arango
BAGHDAD — As Satar Jabar mourned the death of his mother last week, three explosions struck the funeral tent, killing nearly 100 people, including his young son and two of his brothers.
“I feel like I lost my life, my home,” Mr. Jabar said as he received mourners in his home Wednesday afternoon in Sadr City, the gritty and sprawling neighborhood where the attack occurred. “They destroyed everything.”
As visitors recited Koranic verses and sipped tea, angry residents gathered around the corner at the site of the attack, with its charred truck and burned buildings, and demanded that the attackers be executed.
“We want to execute them here,” Mr. Jabar said.
The attack on the funeral last weekend was the deadliest single terrorist strike in recent memory in Iraq, and it has consumed Sadr City, home to a vast Shiite underclass loyal to the radical and politically powerful cleric Moktada al-Sadr, with grief. It has also set off waves of anger toward a government that the people here increasingly view as incompetent and corrupt, even illegitimate, adding to the isolation of a Shiite leadership already struggling to contain growing Sunni unrest.
As anger grew in the community, with groups of people gathering at the attack site and putting up barriers to block traffic, traces of government authority vanished. Security forces withdrew from the center of the neighborhood, with men in black outfits that identify them as militiamen granting access to certain areas. Workers in government buildings — a court, a health center, a Ministry of Education office, schools — went home after protesters demanded they leave.
Rumors circulated that public executions were imminent, and many of the gathered residents expected that they would be carried out. But, in fact, four suspects captured by local militiamen had already been turned over to the government.
The Shiite-dominated central government, led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, is battling an increasingly deadly Sunni insurgency that is morphing into a bloody sectarian fight reminiscent of the country’s civil war of several years ago. The violence is relentless and daily: on Thursday morning bombs struck public markets in two areas near Baghdad, one predominantly Shiite, the other Sunni, killing more than two dozen people.
As the government tries to put down the Sunni insurgency, it now faces rising unrest among members of the country’s Shiite majority, who are becoming more determined to take up the fight themselves. This is perhaps expressed most vividly in the sentiments stirring Sadr City, home to many former fighters in Mr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, who had largely put down their weapons in recent years and put their faith in the political process.
But now that their community faces a deadly streak of terrorist violence, and believes the government incapable of protecting them, that is changing, demonstrated by the protests and unrest this week in Sadr City.
“The whole city is angry,” said Razak Jassim, 43, a friend to Mr. Jabar who joined him in mourning on Wednesday.
“We are all boiling here,” Mr. Jabar said. “We are all waiting for an order from Moktada.”
By that he meant an order from Mr. Sadr to rise up against both the government and the Sunni community. If such an uprising came, it would destabilize Iraq further and could, perhaps, lead the country back to the dark times of the sectarian civil war that gripped it in 2006 and 2007.
But so far Mr. Sadr, who became a kingmaker in Iraqi politics after the 2010 elections by supporting a second term as prime minister for Mr. Maliki, has urged caution. For instance, after militiamen in Sadr City arrested the four suspects in last weekend’s terror attacks, locals said, he refused calls for public executions and ordered the men turned over to the government.
Mr. Sadr may be cautious, for now, but Asaib al-Haq, another powerful Shiite militia that is a rival to the Mahdi Army and also draws some support in Sadr City, has remobilized. Like other Shiite militias here, it has sent many fighters to Syria to help the government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose leadership is dominated by an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but it has also become stronger on the streets of Iraq.
The group, which is backed by Iran and split off from the Sadrist movement several years ago and was responsible for many deadly attacks on the American military when it was here, has seen its political wing welcomed into the government by Mr. Maliki. And as the security forces have proved ineffective in stemming attacks by Sunni insurgent groups, the group’s armed unit, according to militiamen, is increasingly working in secret with the government.
“We don’t do anything until the government asks us,” said one of the group’s leaders, who gave his name as Abu Abdellah. “We have a direct connection with the leaders of the security forces.”
In supporting Asaib al-Haq, Mr. Maliki has apparently made the risky calculation that by backing some Shiite militias, even in secret, he can maintain control over the country’s restive Shiite population and, ultimately, retain power after the next national elections, which are scheduled for next year. Militiamen and residents of Shiite areas say members of Asaib al-Haq are given government badges and weapons and allowed freedom of movement by the security forces.
But other powerful Shiite factions, including the Sadrists, who model their movement after Lebanon’s Hezbollah, are rivals to Asaib al-Haq, whose government support has inspired deep resentments among the followers of Mr. Sadr. It has also sparked frequent street clashes between Asaib al-Haq militiamen and gunmen loyal to Mr. Sadr, which could presage a deadly fight for Shiite dominance in Iraq.
Echoing the sentiments of many of Mr. Sadr’s followers, Karar Hassan, 46, who lost a son in last weekend’s attacks in Sadr City, said this week: “We have had enough killing. Now it is our turn to take action.”
Hamid Khalaf, 37, who joined the protesters in Sadr City, said: “We will not be fooled again by government promises. We gave up our arms and put our faith in the security forces, and all we got was more death and more instability. We tell Maliki that this is your last chance. We will make a coup against your government or you will have to kill us all.”
Sadr City is, in many ways, a community consumed by death, and notions of vengeance. Green, white and yellow banners honoring local men killed fighting in Syria are draped from walls at traffic intersections. Outside the homes that line the narrow and dusty streets are black banners with pictures of victims, some of them children, of terrorist attacks here.
A poster, hung by protesters, read, “We don’t want water, or electricity, we just want to see the execution of our son’s killers.”
As Mr. Jabar walked along his street on Wednesday he pointed to a neighbor’s house.
“Someone was killed here,” he said.
He pointed to another.
“And here also.”
Yasir Ghazi, Duraid Adnan and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting.

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