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Killers in the Neighborhood

9 minute read
Tim Mcgirk/Baghdad

There was a time when Mohammad al-Obaidi didn’t worry much about safety. As a barber in Baghdad’s gritty working-class Washash neighborhood, al-Obaidi would spend his days styling hair–for Sunnis, Shi’ites, Christians, whoever showed up at his World of Haircuts barbershop. Evenings, he would slip off to play soccer with friends. These days, however, as Iraq plunges deeper into civil unrest, al-Obaidi, 27, a stout, personable man who sports a buzz cut, spends much of his time calculating how to stay alive, wondering whether the anonymous killers who now stalk the streets of Washash will come after him, perhaps at his shop or on the long road home.

Al-Obaidi was snipping away at a customer’s hair last month when a text message beeped on his cell phone. CHANGE YOUR PROFESSION, it read, OR ELSE YOU’LL LOSE YOUR HEAD. At first, he thought it was a joke. He immediately called back the number, expecting that he would reach a friend. After all, al-Obaidi is a barber, not a cop or a U.S. hireling, and he wasn’t aware that he had any enemies. But in the climate of fanaticism that now prevails in Baghdad, barbers are being singled out by Sunni extremists who say that cutting a man’s beard violates Islam. “Do what we say,” a stranger on the line told him, “or we’ll kill you.”

A murder spree has erupted in Washash, as in countless neighborhoods across Baghdad. Death squads, which tend to move in Opel sedans, are entering what once were tight-knit communities and killing ordinary citizens, apparently to stir up sectarian hatred. The goal: to incite a civil war that each side hopes will give its sect dominance over the other. In Baghdad, a city of more than 5 million, there were at least 880 violent deaths last month, according to Faiq Amin Bakr, director of the Baghdad central morgue. (In New York City, with a population of more than 8 million, the total number of homicides for all of 2004 was 571.) And the figure for Baghdad excludes those killed by car bombings and suicide attacks, which, if included, would add nearly 100 to the total. Most of the victims were felled by gunshots. Some were beheaded. Few of the murderers have been captured. “Nobody knows who is doing this killing,” says Bakr. “It seems they’re trying to destroy our society.”

The U.S. military officials in charge of protecting Baghdad would be hard-pressed to locate Washash on a city map. That’s because it’s one of the few places in the city where insurgents aren’t shooting at American soldiers; the U.S. patrols in their humvees tend to roll right past. But the violence in this neighborhood is an extension of the war the U.S. is waging against Iraqi insurgents. If the direct attacks on American troops are aimed at driving the U.S. out, the killings in Washash are a grim portent of the kind of chaos that may lie in Iraq’s future, whether or not U.S. soldiers stay on in force. “If the U.S. troops leave, we will have a civil war,” says a Sunni ex-army officer who prefers not to reveal his name. “It will go on until one sect wipes out the other.”

The killings have dramatically increased in the past two months, Washash residents say. And the list of potential targets seems to include just about everyone. Those murdered in recent weeks include a house painter, a juice seller, an ice vendor, a blind cleric and an herbalist specializing in love potions. Despite the warnings he received, al-Obaidi hasn’t quit cutting hair; he doesn’t know how else to make a living. But he is taking what precautions he can. He now works only one day out of every three, and he keeps an eye open for those Opel sedans.

Despite the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq tended to live in relative harmony. Although the sectarian split occurred early in Islamic history and concerns a critical disagreement over who was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad, members of the two groups often trace their roots to the same Arab tribes and frequently intermarry. Saddam, a Sunni, patronized his own kind, giving clansmen top jobs in the army, civil service and secret police, and when Shi’ites in southern Iraq revolted after the first Gulf War, in 1991, Saddam resolutely crushed them. In neighborhoods like Washash, however, there was little friction. Sunnis and Shi’ites played on the same sports teams and shared hubble-bubble pipes over domino games in cafés. “These two words–Sunni and Shi’ite–didn’t exist for us,” says Walid Ahmad al-Anei, a Sunni. “We were all Muslims.”

But these days, as Walid learned to his horror, the division is all too real. Walid’s brother Majid, a bean seller, was targeted two weeks ago as he left a mosque. First his assailants hit him with their car. Then, as he staggered to his feet and tried to escape over a wall, they shot him twice in the head and four times in the chest.

After Saddam fell, violence came quickly to Washash. The first wave of killings was straightforward, motivated by revenge against Saddam’s thugs and informers. Few grieved for the victims. Then insurgents began to target anyone who worked with U.S. forces–as an interpreter, say, or a driver. To survive, those who stayed on the U.S. payroll learned to leave Washash before dawn and pretend they were commuting to jobs outside the city. By last December, the killings had taken on a sectarian slant. As more Sunni extremists poured in from abroad to join the insurgency, they tapped into latent anti-Shi’ite feelings among Iraq’s Sunnis, prompting some to resort to violence. Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist who heads al-Qaeda’s operations in Iraq, fanned the flames, denouncing Shi’ites as worse infidels than the Christian “crusaders,” as he refers to the U.S. troops. Shi’ite groups like the Badr Corps, whose militias are apparently armed by Shi’ites in Iran, have responded with equal savagery against the Sunnis.

The revenge spiral is taking a dramatic toll. In December three Sunni brothers from Washash who belonged to the extremist, virulently anti-Shi’ite Salafi sect were gunned down just outside the neighborhood. The family sought retribution. On a subsequent evening, say witnesses, a mob of 15 gunmen, all relatives and friends of the three dead brothers, surrounded the house of popular Shi’ite clergyman Sheik Razzaq. A frail man in his 50s with a white skullcap and a ready smile, Razzaq had tried to stem the tide of sectarian hatred in the neighborhood, even accepting both Sunni and Shi’ite children into his Koran study classes. Sunni extremists found his message of tolerance threatening. “I was sitting with my wife and son and heard someone call out to me from the gate,” recalls Razzaq. “As I walked to the door, my wife came up and put a woolen shawl on my shoulders. Next thing I knew, they fired at us through the door.” Incredibly, Razzaq was untouched. But his wife Um Hussain lay dying, with 16 bullets in her body, and his son was left paralyzed from his wounds. After the shooting, the Sunni mob went to their mosque and announced over the minaret’s loudspeaker, “Allah is great. We have killed the infidel.” Razzaq shakes his head as he explains, “I’m a Shi’ite. My wife was a Sunni.”

To this day, Razzaq doesn’t know whether he was attacked solely out of revenge for the Salafi brothers’ killing or his assassination had already been planned. Regardless, the killings then escalated. At least 33 people–Sunni and Shi’ite alike–have been killed in Washash this year, and the pace seems to be picking up. One of the latest victims was Shi’ite house painter Ali Jeri, whose death was especially painful to the neighborhood. Jeri was known as a kind and wise mediator who had many Sunni friends. Three gunmen pulled up in a car while he was painting and shot him in front of his child. Not long before that, Jeri had told his brother Ibrahim, “If I am killed because I am known as a religious man and a friend to many, so be it.” That sentiment didn’t resonate for long. In retaliation, seven Sunnis were murdered. Washash residents assume that Shi’ite militiamen did the killing.

These days Sunni and Shi’ite friends still sometimes sit together in the cafés, but the carefree ways of the past are gone. “Beneath our smiles, our hearts have closed,” says a former army officer, a Sunni. “We no longer trust them, nor do they trust us.” Residents believe the killers come from outside Washash, but they know there are informers within. Armed Shi’ite vigilantes patrol the streets, questioning strangers. Because Shi’ites are in the majority in Washash, the Sunnis tend to suffer more. Twenty-five Sunni men disappeared into police custody on Aug. 12, according to human-rights activists, who say the security forces are heavily infiltrated by the Shi’ite militia. No record exists of the arrests.

Gunmen in a car opened fire late last month on traffic police at a Washash crossroads. The men were chased down. One was shot dead, and three others were captured. They were Shi’ites but confessed to being hit men on the payroll of Ansar al-Sunnah, a Sunni rebel group. What’s more, they revealed the names of several informers in Washash. As word of the capture began to circulate, families of the victims flocked to the police station, seeking the names of the assassins. One relative told TIME that police officers demanded a $500 bribe before giving out the informers’ names, and in the spirit of revenge, the sum was gladly paid.

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