When the men in black drive down his street, Ali Hasan al-Mahawish calls out to his playing children to come into the house immediately. He bolts the door, scared. This time it might be his family's turn. The men drive past at walking speed, clutching their guns. It's obvious they know exactly which houses the Sunnis live in. Mahawish is an engineer and a Sunni -- a potential victim of the death squads.
Death squads are becoming part of everyday life in Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods. Sunnis living in the Khadamiya neighborhood are terrorized daily. Sometimes the men in black shoot randomly into their houses and backyards. Sometimes they give the residents five minutes to leave, then set fire to the house. Those Sunni's who aren't simply executed by their neighbors are being systematically driven out of the city's Shiite neighborhoods.
"Ethnic cleansing" in Baghdad?
According to a recent United Nations report, this type of "ethnic cleansing" has spread dramatically in Baghdad, a city of 6 million. And no one can stop the death squads, least of all the police. Six neighborhoods have already fallen prey to organized terror. Weeks have passed since the police was last seen in these neighborhoods, and Sunnis are now more afraid of the men in black than of the daily air raids.
You can protect yourself from bombs by not leaving the house, but the black-clad men come into your home. They claim to be avenging their murdered Shiite brothers. And there is no escape for their victims. Sunni politicians and clerics are their main targets. In the western suburb Abu Ghraib, a Sunni cleric was found shot in front of a mosque. Eye witnesses have identified the killers as members of one of the death squads.
Ali Hasan al-Mahawish lives right next to Al Aimma bridge, which connects his neighborhood with that of Adhamiya, on the other side of the Tigris River. The bridge acquired notoriety when more than 500 pilgrims died on it during a mass panic last year. "My house is sitting right on the border between Sunnis and Shiites. Every day I'm reminded of the dangerous frontier that's been drawn right in the middle of Baghdad. It's already become a genuine front line."
A few days ago, sandbags were placed at the foot of the bridge, which has become a kind of shooting range for the Shiite militias. In the afternoon, civilians position themselves behind the sandbags, and gun barrels point in the direction of the Sunni neighborhood. Sometimes shots are fired. No car drives over the bridge after five in the afternoon. "It's worse than during the war three years ago," Hasan al-Mahawish says.
A Sunni, he once lived peacefully among his Shiite neighbors until about six months ago. "All of a sudden my neighbors have become suspicious," he complains, "even though they know I was never even in the Baath Party and was constantly harassed under Hussein." Ever since the black-clad men have started shooting through windows at night, Mahawish's family of nine has moved to the back of the house.
The family, which has access to water and electricity for only an hour a day, regularly spends this hour watching television to find out about the situation in Iraq. "If I want to have reliable information about my country, I watch foreign TV channels or go to an Internet café," the engineer says. There are now more than 170 newspapers, but none of them report independently. Every newspaper and every radio and TV channel depends on funds from the United States or from a political party. None of them criticize the occupation, and the Iraqi press has yet to report on the death squads.
The death squads
The death squads are well organized, and it's believed that some of the men may be renegade troops of the Interior Ministry. Kamal Hussein, an official at the Interior Ministry, has stated that the black-clad men are not acting on the orders of the government. But Interior Minister Bayan Jabr has long ceased to control his subordinates. The failure to create a new cabinet after the Dec. 15, 2005 elections has resulted in genuine power vacuum. General Rasheed Flayih, the commander of the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry forces, claims they are independent of the Iraqi army. He doesn't deny the existence of death squads. Instead, he euphemistically refers to them as "Field Intelligence Units."
What is certain is that large parts of the death squads were recruited out of the Mahdi Militia of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr. For several months in 2004, al-Sadr's militia conducted a guerrilla war against the Americans in the holy city of Najaf, from where they were eventually forced to retreat.
During a vehicle check in the neighborhood of New Baghdad, Americans recently found a hit list with the names of several hundred Iraqi ministry officials. The hit list was being carried by a policeman who is also a member of al-Sadr's Mahdi Militia.
Things don't look much different on the Sunni side. There, too, citizens are taking up arms. After several of their mosques were destroyed last week, the Sunni militias have attracted many new members, including a number of former soldiers. Help and support have been promised from the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. Large numbers of weapons and fighters are said already to have arrived.
And there's no shortage of recruits. "I'll be the first to go to Baghdad and help my fellow Sunnis make sure there won't be any more attacks on mosques," says Mustapha Adnan, a 27-year-old engineering student from Fallujah. Sunni clerics claim that more than a hundred of their Baghdad mosques have already been damaged or destroyed.
The Sunni minority ruled Iraq for more than thirty years before Saddam Hussein was overthrown. But the balance of power has shifted since the elections. The Shiites -- who make up 60 percent of the Iraqi population -- control the new government. Human rights organizations and the US Army have criticized the crass human rights violations of the Interior Ministry. The situation in Iraq is becoming harder and harder to control. According to the Americans, the police and the army have been infiltrated by insurgents. Often terrorists force members of the police and the army to cooperate with them -- by kidnapping their children, for example.
With each incident, the authority of the state dwindles, and people no longer trust it to protect them. Every party and every organization -- no matter how small -- has its own militia. Every Iraqi is legally permitted to keep a Kalashnikov in his home. Even the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said recently that the US and its coalition partners have opened a "Pandora's box" by overthrowing Saddam. Ethnic tensions, he added, could not only cause a civil war in Iraq, they could also ignite the entire region.
Mahawish, the engineer, doesn't care what the politicians say. What he cares about is survival for himself and his family. The black-clad men on the frontline between Sunnis and Shiites have already achieved their main goal. Everyone is afraid, every day.