Baghdad’s New Owners

It was their last stand. Kamal and a handful of his neighbors were hunkered down on the roof of a dun-colored house in southwest Baghdad two weeks ago as bullets zinged overhead. In the streets below, fighters from Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fanned out and blasted away with AK-47s and PKC heavy machine guns. Kamal is a chubby 44-year-old with two young sons, and he and his friends, all Sunnis, had been fighting similar battles against Shiite militiamen in the Amel neighborhood for months. They jumped awkwardly from rooftop to rooftop, returning fire. Within minutes, however, dozens of uniformed Iraqi policemen poured into the street to support the militiamen. Kamal ditched his AK on a rooftop and snuck away through nearby alleys. He left Amel the next day. “I lost my house, my documents and my future,” says Kamal, whose name and that of other Iraqis in this story have been changed for their safety. “I’m never going back.”

Thousands of other Sunnis like Kamal have been cleared out of the western half of Baghdad, which they once dominated, in recent months. The surge of U.S. troops—meant in part to halt the sectarian cleansing of the Iraqi capital—has hardly stemmed the problem. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in July was slightly higher than in February, when the surge began. According to the Iraqi Red Crescent, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has more than doubled to 1.1 million since the beginning of the year, nearly 200,000 of those in Baghdad governorate alone. Rafiq Tschannen, chief of the Iraq mission for the International Organization for Migration, says that the fighting that accompanied the influx of U.S. troops actually “has increased the IDPs to some extent.”

When Gen. David Petraeus goes before Congress next week to report on the progress of the surge, he may cite a decline in insurgent attacks in Baghdad as one marker of success. In fact, part of the reason behind the decline is how far the Shiite militias’ cleansing of Baghdad has progressed: they’ve essentially won. “If you look at pre-February 2006, there were only a couple of areas in the city that were unambiguously Shia,” says a U.S. official in Baghdad who is familiar with the issue but is not authorized to speak on the record. “That’s definitely not the case anymore.” The official says that “the majority, more than half” of Baghdad’s neighborhoods are now Shiite-dominated, a judgment echoed in the most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: “And very few are mixed.” In places like Amel, pockets of Sunnis live in fear, surrounded by a sea of Shiites. In most of the remaining Sunni neighborhoods, residents are trapped behind great concrete barricades for their own protection.

Amel’s transformation is one of the most dramatic in the city. Under Saddam Hussein the area was a bedroom community for regime apparatchiks—generals and officers like Kamal, who worked for one of Saddam’s secret services. Spacious houses were arranged in grids around schools and recreation centers, fronted by palm trees and wide sidewalks. Saddam trusted the community: houses nestle up against the strategic highway that leads to the airport, and are only a short distance away from the Republican Palace complex that dominates the Green Zone. Now Amel’s Sunnis are crowded into a strip that’s less than a quarter-mile square, surrounded on all sides by concertina wire and scrap-metal barricades. City power cables have been cut, and the streets are strewn with trash and broken glass. There is only one access road not under Shiite control, leading to the airport highway. The enclave houses perhaps 5,000 Sunnis; nearly all the rest of Amel’s estimated 100,000 population is now Shiite. With the agreement of locals, U.S. troops plan to replace the Sunnis’ makeshift roadblocks with concrete barriers.

The Americans increased their presence in the neighborhood in March, when they set up Combat Outpost Attack in a large local sports club. At that point the sectarian cleansing of Amel was already well advanced. Kamal says the process began after the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in February 2006, when the Mahdi Army and Sunni fighters clashed openly in the streets. Soon envelopes were spread along Kamal’s block; each had a bullet inside. Threatening graffiti appeared on nearby houses: LEAVE or WANTED, or sometimes just a red “X.” (Shiite residents in west Amel say they were equally threatened.) Thanks in part to the support of the Iraqi police, Shiites gained the upper hand. By this March, Amel’s Sunnis had been pushed back to the other side of 7th of Nissan Street, a large commercial thoroughfare known to locals as the “street of death.”

COP Attack is surrounded by rings of blast barriers. Troops are shot at regularly when they leave, so there are no frivolous supply runs or token patrols to show the flag—only targeted daily missions like raids to detain suspects or meetings with informants. Despite their presence, the violence has continued to rage. In May, after Sunni insurgents hit a Shiite mosque with a car bomb, Shiite militants executed 24 young Sunni men and dumped their bodies in the bomb crater. According to an official at the Ministry of Interior, who isn’t authorized to speak on the record, 103 bodies were found in Amel in July, the highest body count of any Baghdad neighborhood.

Citywide, Sunnis complain that in the early phases of the surge, as Shiite militias refrained from attacks on U.S. troops, the Americans focused their firepower on Sunni insurgents. The implicit trade-off—pushed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and others—was that the Shiites would scale back their sectarian attacks once they felt safer. Instead militias like the Mahdi Army have become emboldened. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top ground commander in Iraq, recently noted that 73 percent of American fatalities and injuries in Baghdad in July were caused by Shiite fighters. That same month, for the first time since 2003, Shiite militants carried out as many attacks on Coalition forces as Sunni insurgents did nationwide.

Last week, after clashes at a religious festival in Karbala between Sadr loyalists and local police dominated by another Shiite faction, Sadr ordered his forces to refrain from all military activities for six months. In Baghdad, U.S. commanders aren’t expecting to see much change on the ground. “Who knows what that means?” says Lt. Col. Steve Miska, a commander in northwest Baghdad who frequently deals with the Mahdi Army. The militia’s sectarian-cleansing campaign is far too lucrative to be given up easily. When Sunni homeowners flee, say U.S. soldiers, their furniture is often locked up and their houses listed at local Sadr offices. Shiite families—many of them displaced earlier from Sunni neighborhoods—can peruse the listings, sometimes even photos of the property. For around 110,000 Iraqi dinars (about $88) per month, they can rent a furnished home and receive deliveries of cooking oil from the Mahdi Army. The militiamen earn even more money by controlling the gas stations in various neighborhoods, and by carjacking the nicest vehicles—usually, but not always, driven by Sunnis—at the checkpoints they set up.

Shiites present their creeping takeover of Baghdad as part of a narrative of liberation—American officers have dubbed it Shiite “Manifest Destiny.” “This area represents everything [Shiites] hated before—Sunni generals, security officers, Baathists, some of them who probably personally knew Saddam Hussein,” says Capt. Brian Ducote, who tries to intercept Shiite militants based in Amel who raid his neighboring Jihad neighborhood. “They say, ‘You have self-defense in America. My brother was killed; my father was killed. I have a right to do this’.”

The west side of Amel, which is now almost entirely Shiite, is thriving by Baghdad standards. Shops are open and taxis ferry passengers around. Residents can move in and out of the area through several access points. It’s clear who wants to take credit for their security: Mahdi Army fighters have set up checkpoints throughout the neighborhood to screen vehicles. In return, the militiamen brook little criticism. When one Shiite family recently refused to allow a Mahdi sniper up onto their roof, the man went to their neighbor’s house and jumped across to use their house anyway. They didn’t protest. Abbas, a clerk who lives in west Amel, says he doesn’t approve of the Mahdi Army’s activities but he’s not entirely ungrateful for their protection. “This is not a game,” he says.

A few blocks away, COP Attack’s commander, Capt. Sean Lyons of the First Infantry Division, estimates that his men spend about three quarters of their time defending the small Sunni enclave in east Amel. “It’s a desert,” says Mahmoud, a 37-year-old with a slight build and small mustache. Mortars frequently fall around his house. Mahmoud occasionally lets his young son ride his bike in their small yard or in the garage, but worries about snipers constantly. What should be an ordinary stroll to buy meat or ice, he says, is a nerve-racking ordeal. “It makes you crazy,” he says with a nervous giggle. “I bend and hide when I walk. I stay close to the high walls and never walk in the open street.” He shakes his head for a few seconds and adds, “This is not life.”

The Shiite campaign has pushed the Americans closer to the Sunni population. Nightly, local Sunnis come sit with Lyons near the wall-size aerial photo of the neighborhood pinned up in his outpost. “We cyclically plan our operations off the intelligence they give us,” he says. As in other Baghdad neighborhoods, the Americans have formed Amel’s Sunnis into a “neighborhood watch” group whose members are allowed to carry their own weapons. Although they’re given ID cards and rules of engagement, they have wide latitude on the ground. “We have a kind of relationship with the Sunnis around here—they don’t mess with us and we don’t mess with them,” says Staff Sgt. Michael Green, 32.

Much of the information that Sunni informants pass along to the Americans originates in calls from Shiite friends who secretly oppose the young Mahdi toughs, many of whom have arrived from other parts of Baghdad. They’ll pass on the locations of wanted men or, when they see a Shiite mortar team set up in a nearby schoolyard, call Sunni friends and tell them to take cover. Even some militiamen are ashamed of their compatriots: “Many people joined [the Mahdi Army] because they are running after money,” says Ibrahim Ali, a Mahdi fighter based in Amel. “These are gangs of young, uneducated, emotional and armed men who are carrying out kidnappings, extortion and a variety of other violent actions in an effort to gain money, basically, and then also a degree of power,” General Petraeus said on a recent trip to west Baghdad. Sadr aides claim their internal purge is meant to clear the ranks of such opportunists.

Neither American support nor Shiite disillusionment, however, is likely to reverse the dwindling position of Baghdad’s Sunnis. Officially, the Iraqi government is asking residents to return to their old neighborhoods as the massive troop presence enforces a degree of calm; those who do are offered a million-dinar reward (approximately $800). But, says the U.S. official familiar with refugee issues, “Sunnis are reluctant to go back to areas when it’s only Iraqi security forces there managing their safety. In a lot of cases security forces participated in their displacement.” A humanitarian worker focused on IDPs and a U.S. military official both say that often families only return to their houses long enough to grab a suitcase and pocket the reward money before leaving again.

Of course, with Sunnis cleaned out of many Baghdad neighborhoods, Shiites may turn on each other. The fighting in Karbala was only an extension of battles that have been raging in the south for months now. (In the past two weeks, two provincial governors from a rival faction were assassinated, possibly by Sadr loyalists.) Could this be the start of a civil war within Iraq’s civil war? Kamal isn’t waiting around to find out. He’s moving to Syria.