Conflict & Justice

Baghdad neighbors look at one another intently these days, searching for clues

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Credit: REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against predominantly Sunni militants carry weapons during a parade in the streets in Al-Fdhiliya district, eastern Baghdad.

Iraqis are warily sizing each other up, making what might be a life-or-death calculation to determine who will be an ally and who might not be, says Sahar Issa, a resident of the shell-shocked capital.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the audio to hear it.)

“Now again, as we saw in 2006 and 2007, when we look into faces you see question marks in the face. Are you a hostile or are you a friendly?” Issa says. “People are beginning again to be afraid of each other.”

Abandoned bodies are again showing up on the streets of Baghdad, Issa adds. She describes heavily-armed Shite militia “parading” on the streets in Sunni neighborhoods. All sides, she says, are terrified.  

“The Shia community is afraid. Why? Because everyone is shouting out loud, ‘This is al-Qaeda! This is ISIS! This is the Sunni extremists coming to Baghdad to kill the Shiites, to take over and to commit sacrilege to Shiite sites!’ And so they are up in arms,” Issa says. “And the Sunni community is afraid that if the rebels come closer to Baghdad, or indeed if they are able to enter Baghdad one way or the other, that they are going to be in the middle, between these forces — the forces of the rebels who are fully equipped and armed, and the forces of the Shite militia and the Iraqi security forces.”

Issa says many Baghdad families are looking for an exit.

“If they can’t afford to leave, or if they have elderly people with them, at least they are asking the young people to leave,” she says. “This situation is becoming intolerable. It is very frightening.”

The streets of Baghdad are increasingly “militarized,” according to Issa. 

“You have checkpoints every 100 meters. At the checkpoints, you see all sorts of uniforms, all sorts of militia vehicles. You just really can’t tell who these people are any more. Are they Iraqi security forces, are they the paramilitary that has been called up to carry arms?” she asks.  “The government, what it should be doing is pacifying the people, saying, ‘We are seeking a solution, we are attempting to make contacts, we are seeking to rectify the situation one way or another.’ But instead, all it is doing is stoking the fires of sectarian sensibilities and fears.”

Issa says her first priority is to keep her family safe, but laments that a firefight yesterday sent a bullet through the wall and into a bedroom of her Baghdad home.

“If my son is in the house, I don’t know when the door is going to be either knocked or people are going to come in and take him away. If he goes out on the streets I don’t know if he’ll come back,” she says. “Is it safe for him to be inside the house or should he go out? Do I take him to Erbil? I can’t take him to Erbil because of the congestion on the airlines. I can’t take him by road. What do I do? Myself and every other person in my situation — what do we do?”

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