A triangle to the immediate south of Baghdad has emerged as a hotbed of resistance to US occupation forces and a centre for Islamic sectarian conflict. Ahmed Mukhtar reports
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Fatima Mohamed, a Falluja resident, was injured along with other members of her family during a US airstrike on the city
Baghdad's southern tip has witnessed many violent actions similar to those now taking place in Falluja. The area is known as "The Red Point" and "The Triangle of Death" for a series of brutal attacks that have occurred there. Latifiya, 40kms south of the capital, is the last point of the triangle that stretches to Yusufiya and Mahmudiya.
Originally outside of media interest the area was first noticed when six Spanish intelligence officers were shot dead. It soon witnessed many more attacks, such as the assassination of Qassim Abdul-Amir Ajam, deputy minister of culture, the burning of two Japanese journalists and the beheading of British hostage Kenneth Bigley.
Sheikh Hassan Al-Falah, a 36-year-old follower of Grand Ayatollah Sayid Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani, removes the turban that marks him out as a Shia cleric every time he travels from Baghdad to the Shia holy city of Najaf. He does so because the road passes through Latifiya -- a town that in recent months has become home to a particularly intolerant version of radical Sunni Islam.
For nearly a year after the United States-led invasion of Iraq, Latifiya was considered a quiet town. But it has now gained notoriety for the abduction of two French journalists, an assassination attempt on Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi and for the Shia residents who are now fleeing from the town for their lives. In early September two Shia clerics -- Sheikh Basher Al-Jazaeri of the radical Sadrist movement and Sheikh Karim Al-Bahadlei -- were killed in separate incidents.
The area is dominated by Sunni tribes including the Jenabat, Zobaa, Karagoli Al-Gareer and Dulaimi. Many of them are originally from Anbar province to the north where the resistance hotbeds of Falluja and Ramadi are located. According to residents, the tribes came to this area in the 1980s, encouraged by Saddam Hussein's policy of settling Sunnis on highways leading out of Baghdad and in other strategically sensitive areas. Saddam is said to have rewarded the migrants with money and cars, also building a highway linking Falluja with Latifiya in order to bypass Baghdad traffic.
Only in recent months has the area become a launch-pad for radical Sunni groups.
The wreckage of the Shia shrine of Sayed Faraj, visible on the highway north, attests to the Sunni Puritanism that has sprung up in the region.
Locals blame the attacks on armed men known as "the Opel group" -- a reference to the cars they launch ambushes from -- and they claim police are unable to protect them properly.
Although policemen are still present in the town, they do not venture from their station which lies concealed behind towering concrete blast walls. As a result, many Shia residents have decided to leave Latifiya out of fear.
"I am afraid -- I intend to leave my house." said Shia minibus driver Ramadan Al-Yassiri, 47, citing the murder of a Shia school headmaster as grounds for leaving.
He soon relocated to the nearby city of Karbala, to join his brother who had already moved after receiving a death threat from Sunnis. "He had done nothing -- it was just because he was a Shia," said Al-Yassiri.
Hamid Al-Amri, a 45-year-old Shia merchant, expressed the same concerns. "I have been threatened directly. They wrote on my outer house fence 'we will slaughter you tomorrow'." He said that the threat came from a "group calling itself Mujahideen".
For Mohamed Sadiq, a 27-year-old grocer, the story was somewhat different. "My brother joined the Wahabi doctrine under Saddam's regime. This led my father to get him out of our house since he tried to cause a lot of trouble and change our Shia rituals. He even swore at Shia symbols. Three months ago, my brother's corpse was dumped in front of our house by men brandishing weapons and driving Nissan trucks looted from the government." Mohamed believed his brother was killed for refusing to participate in terrorist operations. "I saw my brother two months before his death. He told me he was in trouble because these people killed Shia for no reason. Any comment against Saddam and his regime was forbidden and punished with death." A picture of Saddam is still in place on a town wall. Written on both sides of the picture is the warning: "He who demolishes the picture will be chopped to pieces."
Militants are targeting Iraqi oil tanks and killing the drivers. The Oil Ministry has confirmed that the attackers prevented anyone from approaching the oil tanks by force or even removing the burned corpse of the driver. Shia organisations have called on the government to take steps to restore security in Latifiya.
Iraqi police and National Guard units backed by United States troops raided the town. They claim to have arrested nearly 500 people and seized large caches of weapons. Twelve policemen were killed during the raid.
A militant called Abu Tahrir told Al-Ahram Weekly that his men turned the tables on the government forces, using a suicide car bomb before ambushing them with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. "The mujahideen lost eight martyrs," he said. "They arrested just 80 men, and most of them were civilians."
He denied that his fellow fighters targeted Shia leaders, blaming the attacks on "groups who wish to create sectarian strife".