x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A sectarian tone again overcomes Baghdad's streets

On a recent visit to Baghdad, our reporter Hadeel Al Sayegh was shaken by the bombings and worried by the narrow sectarian overtones on the street.

The series of bomb attacks sounded like a giant bulldozer, waking me from my sleep and continuously rocking the house. Thursday's bombings in Baghdad, the worst violence since the US withdrawal, killed 69 and injured 200 more. Speaking to people in the capital, it was clear that the attacks left Sunnis feeling even more vulnerable.

It was my second trip to Baghdad. My parents left Iraq almost 30 years ago, before I was born, and the post-Saddam era offered an opportunity of a homecoming of sorts. During my first visit in July, I presented both my Canadian passport and an old expired Iraqi passport as identification at the airport. The immigration officer was confused, but after some reassurance, he wrote "originally Iraqi" next to the stamp.

Little did I know that last week's trip would be so different from the first one in the summer. It has been a cold winter in Iraq, with only infrequent supply of electricity and heating oil. It was Muharram, the holy month for Shiites, and the character of the city seemed changed. For the first time, I experienced the feelings of a city hit by terrorist attacks.

As I walked across Baghdad in the days before the bombings, even in the minority Sunni and Christian neighbourhoods there were banners with the writing "Ya Ali, Ya Hussein, Ya Abbas", three major Shiite religious figures. These were not private expressions of devotion, they were signed with the warm regards of Baghdad's government ministries and even the traffic police.

Street vendors had set up giant loudspeakers on the pavements that were blasting Latmiyyat, the rhythmic hum that Shiites listen to when performing self-flagellation in commemoration of Imam Hussein's martyrdom in Karbala in the 7th century. Pictures of influential political clerics and green and black Shiite flags were displayed in almost every neighbourhood.

Iraq's Shiites, about two thirds of the population, were brutally suppressed by the Saddam regime. After the US invasion in 2003, the country was built on the pretext of being multi-ethnic and multi-religious where every person had a right to practise his or her own faith. In a country where terrible sectarian violence is still fresh in memory, however, hanging flags isn't just a sign of religious devlotion, but is a way of marking territory.

"I feel like a stranger in my own country," said a 25-year-old man living in the mostly Sunni district of Mansour. "In the past, I used to go with my Shiite friends to visit the holy shrines, but now they show it is just for them and a vehicle for their politics." Religious flags have gradually taken over his neighbourhood although he could only point out one Shiite household in the area.

The continuing legacy of de-Baathification, purging former officials under the Saddam regime from the new government, has affected the availability of public services, favouring Shiite over Sunni neighbourhoods.

Take Mansour, for example, a neighbourhood that looks like a decaying version of Beverly Hills with its fashion outlets on both sides of a long main street lined by tall palm trees. Or consider Zayoona, a Sunni neighbourhood where officers from the 1950s coup that abolished the monarchy used to live. Both areas are now frequently dotted with bonfires as residents burn rubbish that had piled up uncollected and sewage seeps onto the roads.

"They think by hurting Sunnis they are taking revenge on Saddam," said a 33-year-old man living in Zayoona. "This will not build a country. They need to look at Sunnis as partners in a nation, not as a group that benefited from the previous regime." It is also worrisome when "they" begins to mean Shiites as a whole.

The security situation has improved since the sectarian bloodletting of 2005 to 2007, but those gains seem perilously close to being rolled back. Last week, the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki accused a Sunni vice president, Tariq Al Hashemi, a political rival belonging to the Iraqiyya opposition party, of organising a failed terrorist attack.

It is impossible to determine the truth of these charges, as serious as they are. Mr Al Maliki's Shiite-dominated government cannot conduct a credible investigation and there are obviously political calculations at work. Another important Sunni leader, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, has also been removed from office in violation of the constitution.

Politicians on both sides have backed their respective leaders in a dispute that seems a clash of personalities as much as a battle of sectarian rivalries. Even before Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bombings yesterday, speculation had simmered about a Sunni backlash or that the terrorist group was resurgent in the country after the Americans left. There were similarities to the bombing tactics that Al Qaeda has used in the past.

But more importantly, the argument has spilt into the streets, with protests by Shiite groups blaming Mr Al Hashemi for the bloodshed and demanding justice.

House-bound, I watched Iraqi TV and tweeted the developments, constantly being interrupted by power cuts. At one point, somewhat desperately, I stepped out into the courtyard to pick up a nearby Wi-Fi signal so I could keep tweeting.

It was several hours later before I gained the courage to leave the house and walk to Ahmed's, the nearby street vendor who sells burgers. He was busy flipping patties, struggling to keep up with the orders that were flooding in. Even after a deadly bombing, it turns out Iraqis can still go about their business.



On Twitter: @HadeelASayegh