Then and now: how sectarian terror has torn Baghdad apart
AFTER centuries of vibrant interaction, of marrying, sharing and selling across sects and classes, Baghdad has become a capital of corrosive, violent borderlines. Streets never crossed. Conversations never broached. Doors never entered.
Sunnis and Shi'ites in many professions now interact almost exclusively with colleagues of the same sect. Sunnis say they are afraid to visit hospitals because Shi'ites loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr run the Health Ministry, while Shi'ite labourers who used to climb into pickup trucks for work across the Tigris River in Sunni western Baghdad now take jobs only near home.
The goal of a new Baghdad security plan is to fix all of this - to fashion a peace that stitches the city's divided neighbourhoods back together.
But even in the few neighbourhoods that are improving or are relatively calm, borders loom everywhere. Streets once crossed without a thought are now bullet-riddled and abandoned danger zones, the front lines of a block-by-block war among Shi'ite militias, Sunni insurgents, competing criminal gangs and Iraqi and American troops.
Some coalition soldiers who have been in both Bosnia and Iraq say Baghdad is increasingly looking like Sarajevo in the 1990s, latticed with boundaries that are never openly indicated but are passed on in fearful whispers among neighbours who have suffered horrific losses.
The boundaries mark histories of brutal violence. And for Iraqis, they underscore a vital question: can scarred neighbourhoods ever heal?
Sybaa Street used to be wall-to-wall people: pavements were crammed with shoppers, and roads were snarled with cars as horns honked. In the heart of Central Baghdad, Sybaa was known as the road to get from the car repairers on one side of the city's market district to the hardware stores on the other.
Back then - as recently as two years ago, residents said - no one seemed to care that it was the border between the mostly Sunni neighbourhood of Fadhil and the largely Shi'ite areas of Sadriya and Sheik Omar.
But after six months of fighting between Sunnis and Shi'ites, Sybaa Street is now deserted. Recently, the only sign of life was a lone mechanic working inside a dark garage. Bullets from earlier battles punctured nearly every building.
Um Shaima, 48, a garrulous Sunni widow who used to sell yoghurt in the Sadriya market, lives just north of Sybaa Street in Fadhil. She said she used to visit the shops there to buy clothes. Her cousin Samir worked for years on the Sadriya side of Sybaa Street as a mechanic without any trouble.
Then a few months ago, Shaima said, he received a threat. "They told him, 'You are a Sunni, and all Sunnis are infidels and their women are prostitutes, so stop coming to Sadriya or you will be killed'," she said.
"He didn't listen," she added.
The next day, he was kidnapped. Witnesses said Shi'ite militants yanked him off his motorcycle and threw him in the boot of a car.
"They called his wife at 9am the next day," Shaima said, "telling her that they will kill all the Sunnis, and your husband is dead."
A Shi'ite nephew of Samir's later recovered his mutilated body from a rubbish pile.
Shaima said her two sons now carried guns at night to protect her and her neighbours.
On the other side of the border, in Sadriya, lies a mirror image of anger and fear. The response is similar, too: young men with guns who view themselves as protectors, who justify violence as the reasonable response to violence.
Nazar Sharif Abd Hussein, 35, a carpenter and a self-described militant with the Mahdi Army militia, said he did not hate all Sunnis; one of his sisters who lives outside of Baghdad just married one.
Hussein hardly looks fierce, at 5'7" inches tall, wearing jeans and a grey sweater, with a short beard and sunken dark eyes. But he says he could be vicious when called upon because Sunni gangsters and insurgents in Fadhil had shown no respect for life.
Last May, he said, his 17-year-old best friend, Salar, was shot dead while they both guarded an area near the edge of Fadhil. He said Salar was wearing a flak jacket but a stream of .50-calibre bullets perforated his side and ripped through his chest.
Baghdad's relentless violence has also created another divide: the line between the known and the stranger.
As the unfamiliar has become the dangerous, Iraqis have developed elaborate disguises to help them pass as members of the other sect: adopting identification cards with false family names or developing elaborate fictional histories.
Even then, being a member of the same sect or a relative is no guarantee of safety in a city where Shi'ites have killed Shi'ites and Sunnis have killed Sunnis out of frightened uncertainty about who to trust.
Ali Abu Zainab, 50, a mechanic and a journalist, said the border between his neighbourhood of Saydia and Dora had left him and his three young daughters isolated, cut off from his extended family. Both neighbourhoods have historically been populated by a mixture of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Christians. But because Dora has been a battleground for various militant groups for at least a year, he said, crossing over is impossible.
The Hilla highway, a wide road heading south that separates the two areas, and the Dora highway into the neighbourhood of the same name - have become battle zones. A relative who was forced to drive down the Dora highway three months ago because of a surprise checkpoint saw bodies littering the streets.
In the autumn, he said, he missed a cousin's wedding at his aunt's house in Dora. After another cousin was killed by Shi'ite militants, Zainab was unable to attend the funeral.
Now, he shops near his home. When he leaves, he exits from the opposite side of the neighbourhood. Still, the border's dangers seep in. Because Saydia has remained less violent than Dora, security is not as tight. Fighters pushed out of Dora consider Saydia a good place to hide because they can blend in.
Some Iraqis draw the border at their own doorsteps.
Saadi Khazaal Jawad, 60, a Shi'ite former government worker and restaurateur, said his neighbourhood was so dangerous that he had become a virtual recluse. He lives in Chikuk, a mixed area squeezed among the Sunni neighbourhood of Huriya, Shi'ite Kadhimiya and Shuala.
As Shi'ites from the north and east have begun expanding their turf into Chikuk, Sunnis from Huriya have been fighting back, making every corner here a potential danger zone.
Jawad has a car he almost never drives. He has two daughters and four sons he tries to keep home. He has forbidden his 16-year-old daughter to go to school. Jawad keeps pigeons in cages on his roof. They come from places he used to visit on holiday, like Mosul and Basra. "I spend about two or three hours here," he said as he fed the birds. "I forget everything when I'm here. And besides, I can't go anywhere. It's dangerous."
Experts predict future for country in turmoil
Key figure in Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni political bloc in parliament
"The hope for reform is small because violence is escalating. One of the most important solutions is to create a real balance in government institutions, especially in the defence and interior ministries, and to work on dissolving [Shi'ite] militias. If the government can manage this, Iraq's problems would be solved. If the current security plan succeeds, Iraq will move in the right direction. If it fails, Iraq is doomed to even worse."
Secular Shi'ite cleric and legislator
"Not all scenarios are bad. We are living in a Saddam-free era and that is in itself a good thing. The amount of freedom available is huge and that has turned this era into chaos. We are witnessing a new Iraq that is under construction. There is no doubt the country is on the edge of civil war."
Iraq expert, International Crisis Group
"The most likely scenario is a failed state, with a moderately stable Kurdish region for some time and chaos in the rest of Iraq, where various parties, groups and criminal gangs will battle each other over turf, power and resources. This could play itself out in two ways: one, the civil wars raging throughout Arab Iraq will be contained through US redeployment to the borders and a US effort to set up a regional security framework that will help neighbouring states from falling to the urge to intervene; and two, the civil wars will spill over into neighbouring states, and the misfortunes of some groups will prompt intervention by their patrons, thus triggering a regional war between principal players such as Iran and Saudi Arabia."
Correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, former US marine and former Assistant Secretary of Defence under Ronald Reagan
"In Baghdad, there's a good chance [new US commander] General [David] Petraeus will quell the ethnic cleansing, while the murderous bombings of the Sunni extremists continue. In Anbar, the tribes will join the Marines in fighting the al-Qaeda extremists. In 2008, substantial withdrawal of US troops. In 2009, regardless of who is the new president, a US advisory corps continues, together with a force, to strike al-Qaeda.
"Lacking a sanctuary, the insurgents will be ground down. The US press no longer puts Iraq on the front page, and it churns on relatively unnoticed, like Afghanistan. There will be no easy or quick exit."
Author of books on Iraq, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
"My prediction for Iraq would be a larger version of the Kurdistan region: ie powerful figures paying lip service to representational life, but running fairly effective and ruthless intelligence, security and patronage systems within their own recognised spheres of influence, having reached - through terrible bloodshed - an agreed division of the spoils. This seems to be what's going on at the moment."
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: West