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Baghdad's Sunnis Are Living In Fear Amid Escalated Violence

Sunni Muslims in the Iraqi capital say they are being increasingly targeted by Shiite militia and harassed by security forces.

by John Beck
Aug 1 2014, 12:40pm

On May 17, 2007, Areej Mohammed's husband Khalid Ibrahim was murdered while she went to make him tea. Gunmen walked into the grocery store the Sunni Muslim family ran next to their home in a majority Shiite Baghdad neighborhood, asked for a juice from the cooler and shot him four times in the head with a silenced pistol when he turned to get it.

Areej returned from the kitchen moments later and called through to the shop. When Khalid Ibrahim didn't answer, she opened the door and his body collapsed against her. "He fell on me," she told VICE news through tears. "I can't describe that moment."

The killing happened at the height of a two year Sunni-Shiite conflict which gripped Iraq]\ after Sunni extremist group al Qaeda in Iraq bombed a Shiite mosque and sparked a cycle of reprisal attacks that a weak central government was unable to stop. The dead numbered tens of thousands. Now, Areej feels like it is all happening again. Three weeks ago, her son Omar was snatched by militants then stabbed and beaten so badly that he is now permanently disabled.

The attack is just one incident in an escalation of Sunni-targeted violence that Baghdad residents told VICE News had taken place since hardline Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now known as the Islamic State, overran large parts of northern Iraq in June and routed much of the army.

Iraq's top Shiite cleric urges political leaders not to cling to power. Read more here.

The wholesale slaughter of 2006 and 2007 has not returned, but Shiite militias, Sunnis say, are back on the streets, and in some cases, kidnapping and murdering.

"Life has been a humiliation and my children have all lost their futures."

Areej, now 46, is still coming to terms with her husband’s death. She keeps a picture of him taken five days before he was killed in a cupboard in her home in the Sunni district of Adhamiya where she lives with two of her children. She still can't bear to look at it, so she asks her eight-year-old daughter — born a few months before her father died — to show it. Recent events have destroyed any remaining optimism she still held about what lies ahead for Iraq.

"I have lived in tragedy," she says. "Life has been a humiliation and my children have all lost their futures… Tomorrow is black, it is worse and worse every day."

ISIS's advance has destabilized the security situation, allowing Shiite militias to assert themselves more publicly in the capital and elsewhere. However, the militias were also given official approval. Spooked at the possibility of ISIS making good on their threat to march on Baghdad, lawmakers attempted to incorporate the groups into mixed forces along with the army and volunteers.

In the meantime, more and more bodies are turning up. At Baghdad's central morgue, staff previously told VICE News that an average of five more corpses had been arriving every day since June. Most, they added, had been killed execution-style, a hallmark of sectarian killings.

“I have two children and now I am without a future, how can I raise children without a husband.”

However, this is just an escalation of a trend which was already on the rise. Groups of 20 or more bodies have been found dumped in the capital every month this year, and Sunnis say they have felt increasingly threatened by Shiite militias. Rusul Sabah, 31, who has lost four uncles and a brother in law to bombs and sectarian murder since 2003, told VICE News that her husband was abducted by a group of men in civilian clothes in January. She was later told that he was in a government jail, although she doesn’t know which one and has not even been able to find out if he is alive.

Inside Baghdad's increasingly crowded morgue. Read more here.

"I don't know where he is, what has happened. I haven't spoken to anyone who knows of him or has talked to him,” she told VICE News despairingly. “I have two children and now I am without a future, how can I raise children without a husband.”

Armed gangs are part of a larger problem for Baghdad's Sunni’s, who along with other minority groups in Iraq, have been increasingly frustrated with Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies, which are seen by many as divisive and sectarian. In turn, they accuse the politicized security forces of targeting Sunnis, and Sunni parts of Baghdad, for blockades and mass arrests. These have become more common, they say, after insurgents, likely to be at least affiliated with, if not part of Islamic State, stepped up a suicide bombing campaign often targeting Shiite areas.

Nur, a 30 year old aid agency worker from a Baghdad family who asked that her surname not be used, told VICE News that Sunni neighborhoods in the capital, many of which have long been surrounded by blast walls and are only accessible via police checkpoint, are unfairly singled out by security forces. She says this leads to typical waits of an hour and a half to enter or leave. If there' a bombing, she adds, the entire neighbourhood is often shut off for a full day.

"If you go to a Shiite area you never find that many checkpoints and restrictions. The government is being unfair and treating one group different from another and this has lasted for years. Day after day you feel like your group is being discriminated against and there is a difference in everything."

In response to both this and the risk from militia and bombings, she and her family moved to the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil late last year. Other Sunnis also seem to be fleeing the capital. More than 4,000 Iraqis have left Baghdad to live elsewhere in Iraq this year, according to a July report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). According to the report, 54 percent of the displaced Baghdadis went to majority Sunni Anbar, suggesting that they too are Sunnis.

This too happened back in 2007. However, Areej Mohammed says that there is one important distinction between then and now. Today, she says, the government is more actively involved in targeting Sunnis itself. “[Then] we knew the government couldn't handle the situation... Now we have police and courts and we understand that the government is taking care of the militias."

Dr. Alaa Makki, a member of Iraq's largest Sunni Islamist political group the Iraqi Islamic Party, told VICE News he had no doubt that there was official involvement with crimes committed by Shiite militias. He pointed to a July 24 case when 52 prisoners were killed, in what officials told VICE News was an attack by Sunni insurgents on a prison bus traveling from Taji to Baghad that also claimed the lives of nine policemen. Makki, however, says the prisoners were summarily executed.

"It's obvious that the detainees, indicated to be Sunni, were maybe challenging the government. So who would have benefited from killing them? Their colleagues now surrounding Baghdad or the people that they're challenging?" he asked.

There have been similar incidents before. On June 23, 69 prisoners died while being transferred to a Baghdad jail. Officials said the convoy transporting the victims was attacked by militants and that some of the men were killed in the resultant firefight. However, sources told Reuters that the men were actually shot by police.

Shiite lawmakers deny the charges. Adnan al-Saraj, a prominent member of Maliki's State of Law coalition told VICE News that he had no concerns about an uptick in sectarian violence.

“I’m sure that all Iraqi people are united and we won’t see sectarian violence as we did in 206 and 2007, when Sunni’s couldn’t travel to Shiite areas and the opposite," he says.

He added that Shiite militias working with the government were now all held to high standards of behavior, but admitted that there might still be some bad elements: “Authorities have now taken strict measures against all militia outside of government control. It requires a bit of time to get rid of all of the individuals not representing the right kind of Shiites."

Whatever the reality, all Sunnis who spoke with VICE News say they bear no ill will towards Shiites as a whole, but rather, felt trapped between Maliki's government and the ISIS-led militants.

"The Iraqi people are trapped between the government and ISIS, each of which are looking after their own interests," Nur says. "The government says that they are different from ISIS, but at the end I think all of them want one thing... to keep their own seats of power."

Sabah agreed, adding that she is concerned that if things continue as they are, the situation will inevitably worsen. “The problem is not with the people," she says. "The problem is those trying to impose their agendas."

The Islamic State trailer: Trailer 2. Watch here.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck