The Fear

I was reading my newspaper on the banks of the Tigirs, sitting by what has become my favourite dock on a beautiful Baghdadi day. The headline annoyed me so much I put the paper aside for a couple of minutes before picking in up again to read: ‘It’s Fear That Keeps Baghdad’s Peace’. Something about this article annoys me. I can’t put my finger on it. It slaps me in the face even before I start reading it.

The streets are calmer now. The fighting between Shiites and Sunnis has largely ceased. But this is not a sign of normalcy in the Iraqi capital. It’s fear that keeps the peace.

I was planning on writing about it saying it is wrong and a bit bloodthirsty but we didn’t have electricity so I had to wait. And the more I thought about it the more I saw truth in it.

Maybe it annoys me because it just puts the numbers there hanging in the air almost as if Sunnis were refusing to come back and take part in Baghdad’s political and social affairs.

I know AP has numbers to back these claims up and, hey, just look at us. My aunts and uncles, four Shia families, and us we haven’t dared go back to our homes in the west of Baghdad, now declared Sunni. The first time we went to visit since 2005 was last month and it was depressing. So few of the old neighbours are still there and it feels so much less vibrant than the inner Baghdad neighbourhoods.. But still something about that article makes me squirm.

In the capital, however, the calm has been achieved in part because the city is now ethnically divided.

No shit! You’re not telling me anything new here. This was government and US army policy. Who put up the walls cutting of Sunni districts from the rest of the city?

Two years after the first walls went up the sectarian division of Baghdad is fact. People sold their houses in areas they can’t live in anymore and tried to buy houses in areas safer for them. The important word here is tried. This shuffling of demographic cards totally distorted the prices of property. Many were forced to sell cheap, especially if they were living in Sunni areas. Those who don’t want to sell are left with nothing. If you want to rent home owners demand a year’s rent in advance. Who wants to be running after a tenant when they can pop a cap in your ass if you bug them too much. But I’m digressing..

So, yes it’s a mess. Maybe the article annoys me because it is true. This whole thing is too fragile.

The article mentions again and again that it’s Sunnis who ended up with the icky end of the stick. While Shia neighbourhoods prosper Sunni districts look like ghost towns the article says. True again.. Maybe I hate it for being this blunt.

Yes. If I count the districts which are really seeing a return to this odd thing we are calling normality – which isn’t but there is no other word to describe it - if I think about the districts were things feel OK they’re mostly Shia with the exception of al-Mansour which is slowly but surely getting it’s groove back as Baghdad’s choice location for window shopping and cool teenage posing.

But the rest is either Shia or Shia/Christian. Karada which stays open until 10pm is Shia, al-Kadhimya where you can still find fresh bread being baked at 9 in the evening is also Shia. The area around Al-Wathiq Square with it’s many new restaurants Christian/Shia.

Most startlingly, the ethnic divides remain even though the Iraqi and U.S. militaries have driven Shiite militiamen and death squads off the streets.

This also annoys me. Is the writer being wilfully naïve? I am sure he knows better. The militias might have disappeared but one of the main reasons why these Shia neighbourhoods are safer than other districts is because Shia political parties were allowed to have their own organised security and militia forces. Like the Kurdish parties no one was allowed to question the right of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in having it’s own militarised arm, the Badr Organisation. And al-Dawa under al-Maliki started their own security brigade, in the guise of a counter terrorism brigade.

The Sunnis on the other hand were left to fend for themselves. And between the Mahdi Militias with their ominous slogan ‘Our regular programme will resume after this break’ and the other Shia security forces the ‘Awakening Groups’ were too little and too late. The harm was done.

Yes it is fear that’s keeping Baghdad calm but it’s a fear we used to know. The fear from overbearing security forces and intelligence officers. But having seen hell in the form of a men killing bus-loads of people for US$100 a head – literally, per HEAD – we might have acquiesced to heavy handed security measures we’ve learned to live with in previous times.

And while these measures might seem acceptable to the Shia population the forces who are enforcing these measures aren’t as easy on the Sunnis.

Al-Maliki’s approval rating of al-Maliki amongst the Sunni population is up to 31% from just 8% last year but four out of ten Iraqis  think that al-Maliki is concentrating too much power in his office[pdf]. And that’s across sectarian lines.

If you ask me that’s the fear that’s keeping Baghdad’s peace.

4 Responses to “The Fear”

  1. Jeffrey -- New York Says:

    Salam,

    I thought you might like to read a blog entry from Touta, another Iraqi blogger, that offers a recent scene from her neighborhood about what can happen when Iraqis return to their homes:

    And That’s How It Goes Down.

    *

  2. David All Says:

    Salam, the hardening Shia/Sunni divide does not sound so good for Iraqi’s future, given that the American troops are suppose to withdraw from Iraq over the next two to three years. What we happen after the US leaves?

  3. Cinnamon Says:

    Greetings. I have just bought the book which collects your old posts from 2002 to 2003 and have started reading (a bit late in the day, I know).
    I bought it in a second-hand shop- but wondered if you would have earned income from the original sale of this book?- I hope so! Or is some other cat creaming it off?
    I will be reading along with your current posts too.
    The dock in your photo looks stunning.

  4. CMAR II Says:

    SalamPax,

    “In the capital, however, the calm has been achieved in part because the city is now ethnically divided.”

    No shit! You’re not telling me anything new here. This was government and US army policy. Who put up the walls cutting of Sunni districts from the rest of the city?

    Ummm…when they weren’t divided, they were killing each other. What would have been your solution instead?

    While Shia neighbourhoods prosper Sunni districts look like ghost towns the article says. True again.. Maybe I hate it for being this blunt.

    Well, to be blunt. This is a bed that Sunni Arabs made for themselves, no? They positioned themselves as “wronged” in the overthrow of Saddam. There were no Sunni Arab organization in direct opposition to Saddam (why do you think that is?). They were dragged to the (messy) table of democratic Iraq begrudgingly at best and kicking and screaming at worst. The resistance that was nurtured in Sunni Arab neighborhoods almost dragged Iraq into a sinkhole. Now they are 4 or 5 years behind the rest of Iraq.

    The Sunnis on the other hand were left to fend for themselves.

    Well, the Sunni Arab militias were used to directly oppose the democratic government. If they had only been devoted subverting it as Sadr’s militia did, then things might be different today. The Sons of Iraq might grow into something like that, but they are –again– well behind the rest of Iraqis in organization and legitimacy (as you sorta said).

    If you ask me that’s the fear that’s keeping Baghdad’s peace.

    In general, people aren’t nice and good law enforcment is about Fear of Law Enforcement Officers. Japan famously has a 98% conviction rate but relatively little crime. The reason the Japanese don’t live in “fear” is because they have developed a Trust of their government. That’s what is missing in Iraq, I think. Give it time.

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