BAGHDAD — The separation of religious groups in the face of sectarian violence has brought some semblance of relative calm to Baghdad. But many Iraqis see this as the uncertain consequence of a divide and rule policy.
Claims are going the rounds that sectarian violence in Iraq has fallen, and that the U.S. military “surge” has succeeded in reducing attacks against civilians. Baghdad residents speak of the other side of the coin – that they live now in a largely divided city that has brought this uneasy calm.
“I would like to agree with the idea that violence in Iraq has decreased and that everything is fine,” retired general Waleed al-Ubaidy told IPS in Baghdad. “But the truth is far more bitter. All that has happened is a dramatic change in the demographic map of Iraq.”
And as with Baquba and other violence-hit areas of Iraq, he says a part of the story in Baghdad is that there is nobody left to tell it. “Most of the honest journalists have left.”
“Baghdad has been torn into two cities and many towns and neighbourhoods,” Ahmad Ali, chief engineer from one of Baghdad’s municipalities told IPS. “There is now the Shia Baghdad and the Sunni Baghdad to start with. Then, each is divided into little town-like pieces of the hundreds of thousands who had to leave their homes.”
Many Baghdad residents say that the claims of reduced violence can be tested only when refugees go back home.
Many areas of Baghdad that were previously mixed are now totally Shia or totally Sunni. This follows the sectarian cleansing in mixed neighbourhoods by militias and death squads.
On the Russafa side of Tigris River, al-Adhamiya is now fully Sunni; the other areas are all Shia. The al-Karkh side of the river is purely Sunni except for Shula, Hurriya and small strips of Aamil which are dominated by Shia militias.
“If the situation is good, why are five million Iraqis living in exile,” says 55- year-old Abu Mohammad who was evicted from Shula in West Baghdad to become a refugee in Amiriya, a few miles from his lost home.
“Americans and Iranians have succeeded in realising their old dream of dividing the Iraqi people into sects. That is the only success they can talk about.”
Violence is no more hitting the headlines, but it clearly continues. Bodies of Iraqis killed after being tortured are still found in garbage dumps, although fewer than a few months ago.
“Iraqi and American officials should be ashamed of talking of ‘unidentified bodies’,” Haja Fadhila from the Ghazaliya area of western Baghdad told IPS. “These are the bodies of Iraqis who had families to support, and names to be proud of. But nobody talks about them, there is no media. It is as if it is all taking place on Mars.”
The Iraqi ministries for health and interior have said that they are finding on average five to ten “unidentified bodies” on the streets of Baghdad every day.
“Those Americans and their Iraqi collaborators in the Green Zone talk of five or ten bodies being found everyday as if they were talking of insects,” Thamir Aziz, a teacher in Adhamiya told IPS. “We know they are lying about the real number of martyrs, but even if it’s true, is it not a disaster that so many innocent Iraqis are found dead every day?”
Most people blame the Iraqi police for the sectarian assassinations, and the U.S. military for doing little to stop them.
“The Americans ask (Prime Minister Nouri al) Maliki to stop the sectarian assassinations when they know very well that his ministers are ordering the sectarian cleansing,” Mahmood Farhan from the Muslim Scholars Association, a leading Sunni group, told IPS.
A UN report released September 2005 held interior ministry forces responsible for an organised campaign of detentions, torture and killings. It said special police commando units accused of carrying out the killings were recruited from the Shia Badr and Mehdi militias.
Retired Col. James Steele, who served as advisor to Iraqi security forces under former U.S. ambassador John Negroponte, supervised the training of these forces.
Steele had been commander of the U.S. military advisors group in El Salvador in 1984-86; Negroponte was U.S. ambassador to neighbouring Honduras 1981-85. Negroponte was accused of widespread human rights violations by the Honduras Commission on Human Rights in 1994. The Commission reported the torture and disappearance of at least 184 political workers.
The violations Negroponte oversaw in Honduras were carried out by operatives trained by the CIA, according to a CIA working group set up in 1996 to look into the U.S. role in Honduras.
The CIA records document that “special intelligence units”, better known as “death squads”, comprised CIA-trained Honduran armed units which kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of people suspected of supporting leftist guerrillas.
Negroponte was ambassador to Iraq for close to a year from June 2004.
(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)