In Iraq, Suspicions End a Friendship Between Neighbors
The Wall Street Journal
By Farnaz Fassihi
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Omar Falleh Hassan and Hussein Hamoud Suraybet used to be friends. Now when they pass in the neighborhood of Doura, where both live, they barely say hello.
After one of the most violent months in Iraq since the U.S. invasion — there were 148 car bombs and more than 750 civilian deaths in Iraq last month — the falling out between two neighbors may seem unimportant. But the end of their friendship reflects a fundamental problem in Iraq: skyrocketing tensions between Sunni Muslims, like Mr. Hassan, and Shiite Muslims, like Mr. Suraybet.
The story of their families’ deteriorating relations highlights how surging violence has taken on a sectarian tinge that poses serious new challenges for the recently installed interim Iraqi government and U.S. forces.
A recent spate of violence appears to be tit-for-tat killings between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, two of the country’s largest groups. Even more alarming, the tension seems to reflect a broader conflict between a Sunni-dominated insurgency and Shiite-dominated government.
Scores of corpses have been found dumped in empty lots, floating in the Tigris River or hidden in garbage piles in recent weeks. The bodies were groups of either Sunni and Shiite men — almost never mixed. Some had been blindfolded or handcuffed, then executed and their bodies mutilated.
Not even clerics have been spared. Aides to the highest Shiite and Sunni religious leaders were kidnapped and murdered last month. At Baghdad University, riots broke out between Shiite and Sunni students after gunmen assassinated a Shiite student. Days earlier, the student had thrown a party celebrating the formation of a new Shiite government.
Many government and religious leaders have tried to calm tensions and preach patience. Privately, however, they worry that a frustrated, terrified public is pulling more tightly into its own sectarian community for protection — and, increasingly, revenge.
A senior U.S. official says he and others have warned Iraqi leaders recently they must address sectarian violence, “before it spins out of control.”
“No one wants to talk about it,” he says. “But it’s clearly what’s happening.”
Sunni Muslims make up an estimated 18% of Iraq’s population, while Shiites make up about 65%. The two groups have long shared the same country and, in many cases, the same neighborhoods. The two branches of Islam — which parted ways in the ninth century over leadership of the Muslim community — have co-existed uneasily for hundreds of years throughout much of the Islamic world.
Saddam Hussein’s regime was dominated by the Sunnis. The regime systematically persecuted Shiites in Iraq’s south, as well as ethnic Kurds in the north, who make up about 15% of the country’s population. Opposition groups aimed almost all of their ire at the Sunni leadership. But in many neighborhoods in Iraq, such as Doura, Shiites and Sunnis still managed to live peacefully as neighbors for decades under Mr. Hussein’s rule.
Mr. Hassan, 23 years old, runs a small barbershop from his home. Mr. Suraybet is a 32-year-old day laborer. Their families had been friends for nearly two decades, both men say. They attended weddings and funerals for members of each other’s families. Their mothers, wives and sisters exchanged gossip and prepared big meals together on festive occasions. Their children played hopscotch together.
Mr. Hassan, who inherited his haircutting business from his father, regularly cut Mr. Suraybet’s hair.
Since the beginning of the year, however, the two men and their families have been pulled apart by a national struggle that is shaped more and more by perceived sectarian interests.
The ouster of Saddam Hussein by U.S.-led forces in many ways turned Iraq’s sectarian order on its head. Sunni Muslims, who often enjoyed privileged positions under Mr. Hussein’s regime, saw their domination eclipsed by an alliance between the majority Shiites and ethnic Kurds. Both groups were brutally oppressed by Mr. Hussein’s regime.
The violent insurgency spawned after the war has been strongest in Sunni Muslim areas, fueled in part by Sunni grievances against the U.S. occupation and its elevation of a government dominated by Shiites and Kurds.
In Doura, tensions between Sunni and Shiite neighbors began to surface not long after Mr. Hussein’s regime fell. Insurgents — a hodgepodge of those trying to destabilize Iraq — found sympathizers among some Sunni residents. U.S. military officials say Iraqi Sunni Arabs make up 95% of the insurgency.
Roadside bombs were common in the neighborhood and rockets were launched at the nearby American base. Shiites suspect the attacks were done with the help or acquiescence of Sunni residents, allegations Sunnis deny.
Still, Shiite and Sunni residents say that until the formation of the new Iraqi government, tensions remained largely below the surface, as both groups focused on their mutual dislike of the U.S. occupation.
For Messrs. Hassan and Suraybet, a turning point came in January. Working as a construction laborer, Mr. Suraybet supported his wife and five children and helped sustain two dozen other family members. On one of the holiest Shiite holidays, known as Ashura, he and a friend went to the local mosque.
He was washing his hands, preparing to pray, when a suicide bomber blew up at the gate. Mr. Suraybet says he was flung onto on the mosaic ground of the mosque, blood and pieces of flesh clinging to his clothes. The explosion killed his friend and more than 20 other worshipers. Mr. Suraybet was seriously injured, along with scores of others.
Mr. Hassan and his family were home preparing for their noon prayer at the time. The blast shook their home and rattled the windows. He ran to get his younger brother and sisters, who were playing outside, and to ask neighbors what had happened.
One neighbor, a middle-aged Shiite man, approached Mr. Hassan’s house, he says. The man stood in the street and began shouting in Arabic: “Terrorists! …All Sunnis are killers. They are killing us. We will take revenge!”
The man had been a haircut customer of Mr. Hassan and his father for years. Mr. Hassan says he watched uneasily — noticing that none of his Shiite neighbors, many his friends, silenced the man. Then he took his younger siblings’ hands, went inside the house and locked the front gate. After that day, he says many Shiite clients stopped coming to his barbershop.
Tensions continued to escalate. Another Sunni neighbor, Amer Mohi Ismaeel, a 27-year-old who owns a grocery store, says that during several conversations with Shiite customers he was warned that “one day it would be the Sunnis’ turn.” Once, he says, a young Shiite man told him, “wait until we have the power. You will all be paid back.”
Mr. Suraybet spent 10 days in the hospital after the mosque bombing. When he returned home, he walked with a cane. Shrapnel remains embedded in the bone of his right leg and in his skull, causing headaches and blurry vision, he says. He couldn’t work and began relying on his brothers for a small weekly stipend.
When Iraqi elections took place in January, Mr. Suraybet and his family all voted enthusiastically for the Shiite list of candidates. They hoped the new government would resurrect rights stripped away by Mr. Hussein’s regime. Shiite-dominated parties swept the election as Shiites across the country flooded into polling stations.
Sunni voters were far fewer. In many Sunni areas, it was considered too dangerous for polling stations to open. Insurgents had threatened the population with retaliation if they voted. Sunni leaders also urged their followers to boycott the election because it was being held under U.S. occupation.
Since the elections, the overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurdish interim government has tried to bring in more Sunnis, negotiating with Sunni political parties, tribal leaders and even some insurgent leaders, to persuade them to join the government. So far, Sunnis remain underrepresented at almost all levels of the new Iraqi order. But yesterday, Sunni groups and the Shiite-dominated committee writing Iraq’s new constitution reached a compromise that will add 15 Sunnis to the two already sitting on the 55-member committee. Ten more Sunnis will also join the panel as advisers.
Sectarian representation is even more lopsided when it comes to the new Iraqi security services, which the U.S. is pouring tens of millions of dollars into training and equipping. Its ranks are overwhelmingly filled with Shiite and Kurdish volunteers.
This heartens Mr. Suraybet. He says the Shiite dominance of the security services ensures its determination to crush the Sunni-dominated insurgency. “I feel the government is ours. The security forces are from us, and I have no fear,” he says. “They are doing an excellent job.”
But Mr. Hassan’s experience only makes him more anxious about a government he took no part in electing.
The new Iraqi security services have taken a bigger role in fighting the insurgency. Last month, the crackdown arrived at Mr. Hassan’s home. He says a group of about 20 Iraqi commandos jumped the wall of his home and kicked open the front door in the middle of the night.
They fired a warning shot into the living-room floor and demanded to know what tribe Mr. Hassan’s family belonged to, he says. When he and his father said “Dulaimi” — a large Sunni tribe based in an insurgent-dominated area — he says the commandos put guns to their heads. Mr. Hassan says he was dragged out of bed in his underwear and arrested, along with his 53-year-old father and 30-year-old cousin. They were taken away, blindfolded and handcuffed, he says.
In all, the commandos rounded up nearly 40 Sunni men from the neighborhood, according to Mr. Hassan. He says they were taken to the downtown Baghdad headquarters of the Wolf Brigade, a division of the Iraqi security forces. They were interrogated and treated harshly, deprived of water and food, and not allowed to use the bathroom, according to Mr. Hassan and others who were detained with him. Mr. Hassan says he was accused of being a Sunni terrorist.
Mr. Hassan was released the next day. But his father and cousin remain in custody, he says, and the family hasn’t been given any information about where or why they are being held.
The Iraqi government declined to comment on any operation in a specific neighborhood. Officials have said the military is focusing attention on Sunni neighborhoods where insurgents are suspected of making inroads. Doura is the top suspected neighborhood in Baghdad for harboring insurgent cells and sympathizers, according to a senior American military intelligence official.
Mr. Hassan is convinced his family was targeted solely because they are Sunni. He suspects his Shiite neighbors told security forces looking for Sunnis which houses to raid. He says one commando told him he should watch himself because the informer lives in their neighborhood.
Mr. Hassan says he and his family don’t trust any of their neighbors now and don’t allow the women in the family to socialize with them at all. With the few Shiite customers he has left, he avoids even making small talk. “I hate them,” he says.
“The government talks about respecting human rights and treating Sunnis and Shiites equally, but it’s only talk for the media,” says Mr. Hassan. “In reality, they are dividing us more and more every day.”
Mr. Suraybet angrily denies he or other Shiites are causing trouble for Sunni neighbors. He hasn’t informed on any neighbors, he says, but knows others who have. And he says he is happy they did. “The Sunnis who are getting arrested now deserve it,” he says. “They are terrorists and our new government and our new police will deal with them.”
Now many of the Sunni men in Doura — fearing mass arrests — leave their homes each night to sleep on relatives’ floors in other neighborhoods, until tensions settle down. Some are thinking of selling their homes and moving to a neighborhood in Baghdad where only Sunnis live. Still others whisper about staying and joining the insurgency.
Write to Farnaz Fassihi at email@example.com.