BAGHDAD — The new clashes between Shia militiamen dressed in Iraqi military and police uniforms and resistance fighters and residents from the Sunni Adhamiya district of Baghdad have convinced many that what Baghdad is witnessing is no less than a civil war.
For long now, some leaders from both Shia and Sunni communities have been making peace moves, but this has done little to check escalating sectarian violence following the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shia Golden Mosque in Samarra.
Over several weeks before new clashes Monday and Tuesday this week, Adhamiya residents had been barricading streets with tyres and the trunks of date palm trees to keep kidnappers and “death squads” away. But clashes broke out about 12.30 am Sunday night following a ‘police’ raid on the area.
“We’d had sporadic fighting for several nights before, but nothing like this,” a man who asked to be referred to as Abu Aziz told IPS.. “My family and I thought a war was happening because so many heavy guns, mortars and rocket propelled grenades were being used.”
IPS saw the sky over the area glow red through the night, as U.S. military helicopters hovered above.
Residents said the attack was clearly carried out by Shia militia.
“I have seen these members of the Badr militia and Mehdi Army wearing Iraqi Police (IP) uniforms and using IP pick-up trucks roaming our streets,” said Abu Aziz, “They tried to reach our sacred Abu Hanifa mosque, but they were stopped before they could do so, thanks to god. Some were just wearing civilian clothes with black face masks, others were definitely commandos from the ministry of interior.”
Last month Iraq’s minister of interior Bayan Jabr told reporters that “the deaths squads that we have captured are in the defence and interior ministries.. There are people who have infiltrated the army and the interior.”
The Badr Organisation is the armed wing of the Shia Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Mehdi Army is the militia of the fiery Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Through the attack, in which scores of ‘IP’ men drove up to attack the district, at least six IP vehicles were burned, and at least one of the Shia militia members was killed, local residents told IPS.
They also reported that at least 10 residents including at a woman were killed in the clashes. This round of fighting continued until 12.30 pm Monday.
One resident wrote to IPS to say: “Men in police uniforms attacked the neighbourhood. The ministry of interior claimed the uniformed men don’t belong to the puppet (Iraqi government) forces, but local residents are quite sure they are special forces from the ministry of interior, probably Badr brigades. The neighbourhood was sealed off and the mobile phone network was disconnected until 10.45 pm. Electricity was cut off from 10 am.”
Resistance fighters with sniper rifles, Kalashnikov machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers lined rooftops to thwart the onslaught by the Shia militiamen, he said.
His note added: “When the uniformed forces entered the neighbourhood, the National Guards that are usually patrolling the streets left. Young armed men from the neighbourhood fought side by side with mujahedin against the attacking forces to protect al-Adhamiya. Several residents have been killed in the streets, but there are currently no figures available. U.S. troops also entered the neighbourhood. At first, they only stood by and watched; later on they too fired at the locals, who tried to repel the attacks.”
No independent confirmation of the account was available. Shia groups officially deny that they have been attacking Sunni targets in the guise of the army and police. And while the minister of the interior acknowledged earlier that these groups and infiltrated the police and army, it is rarely possibly to obtain independent or official views on every clash.
But U.S. forces were clearly involved in the fighting. The Associated Press reported that “Army officials said they had suffered no casualties, and planned to raid homes to search for the gunmen.” Residents said the U.S.. forces arrived to provide back-up support to the Shia militiamen wearing Iraqi Police uniforms and army fatigues.
The U.S. military spokesperson in Baghdad did not respond to phone calls and email messages from IPS requesting comment on the clashes.
The clashes have continued.. Scores of men wearing white robes and carrying guns, in a manner of suicide martyrs, arrived in Adhamiya Tuesday morning and moved to attack the Sunni Jalal mosque. Witnesses said the men fired at the mosque, and this led to clashes that lasted until 1 pm before the men were forced to retreat.
Other armed groups approached Adhamiya from three directions, but were repelled before they could reach the Abu Hanifa mosque. Clashes erupted near the al-Anbia mosque in the area. Fierce fighting broke out on one of the two main thoroughfares into Adhamiya, the Omar Abdul Aziz Avenue.
Tension has remained high in the area. Just across the Tigris river from the Adhamiya neighbourhood is the predominantly Shia Khadimiya area. Sporadic gunfire was heard Tuesday across various locations in Adhamiya.