With no immediate prospect of a US withdrawal from Iraq, Nermeen Al-Mufti examines the human cost of the ongoing sectarian violence
The United States occupation forces have deployed over 3,700 troops in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq in an attempt to restore order and curb sectarian violence. Since the bombings in Samarra last February, sectarian and random violence has been taking a heavy toll on civilian lives. Dead bodies continue to be found in Baghdad and other municipalities, while officials estimate the death toll at 100 per day, if not more. Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad Al-Bulani has promised to cleanse his ministry of "corrupt" elements. Since Tuesday, the Interior Ministry and US forces have been launching a security campaign in Greater Baghdad.
Baghdad has turned into a ghost city. Shops are closed except for a few precious hours in which the population rushes out to buy food stuffs. Many inhabitants have already left, and those who remain behind have to line up for up to eight hours a day to buy fuel. Two car bombs, an explosive charge, and three mortar shells hit Al-Karradah a few days ago, killing 26 civilians and wounding 46, all within a half hour. The inhabitants of that once fashionable district of Baghdad say that bodies are still trapped under the rubble and, unless removed soon, may lead to epidemic diseases.
The term "Greater Baghdad" is confusing, says political analyst Saad Al-Hudeithi. No one knows where the borders of Greater Baghdad lie or where the security operations would take place. In recent weeks, men disguised as policemen have posed a great threat to the locals. The men use identification cards, uniforms and cars that only policemen are allowed to use. But they are not policemen. The Interior Ministry says it has no clue as to their identity. And it promises, as it did many times in the past, to change its uniforms and cars to make it harder for "unidentified" gunmen to abduct and kill civilians, while posing as security forces.
When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki visited the US recently, he glamourised the occupation and thanked the Americans for helping "liberate Iraq". Most Iraqis would disagree with Al-Maliki's assessment, according to Al-Hudeithi. The US is still deploying its troops in Baghdad and building bases for its forces. This does not seem to be an act of liberation, especially when one keeps in mind the continuous attempts to divide the country. Shia leader Abdel-Aziz Al-Hakim is again calling for a federal system in the south and centre of Iraq. Apparently, the US is using Iraq as a staging point for redrawing the map of the region, for eliminating the borders put in place by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, Al-Hudeithi adds. In Washington, the Iraqi prime minister reassured the Americans that Iraq would be "in the frontline of the fight against terror".
Many of Baghdad's inhabitants are trying to flee the capital to Kirkuk, itself a violence-ridden city. About 500 people, mostly Turkman, were killed and wounded last month in Kirkuk. A car bomb at the courts of law left 58 killed and 170 wounded. A suicide attack in a coffee house in Tuzkhurmatu, 70 kms south of Kirkuk, killed 27 and wounded 48. Despite the violence in Kirkuk, hundreds of families have been fleeing Baghdad to Kirkuk.
In Kirkuk's southern suburbs, trucks laden with furniture wait for hours while families scramble to get a permit from the Kirkuk City Council to enter the town. Only families with relatives qualifying as original Kirkuk citizens are allowed to enter. But non-Kurds in the city have been complaining that Kurdish families from northern Iraq and Kurdish Iranian families that used to live in the Tash camp near Al-Ramadi keep arriving in Kirkuk. This, they say, is an attempt to alter the city's demographics ahead of March 2007, the date set for "normalising" the situation in Kirkuk.
Turkman claim that Kurdish leaders want to use the violence as an excuse to bring in the Peshmergas (Kurdish fighters) to Kirkuk, a move that would increase the Kurdish hold on the city. Turkman sources speak of $2 million paid to Arab clans living in west Kirkuk to help the Kurds with their plans to control the city.
Iraqi families who could leave the country have already done so. According to Iraqi sources, 3.8 million Iraqis have arrived in Syria, settling mostly in Damascus and Aleppo. Over two million have arrived in Jordan. Meanwhile, sectarian displacement continues to take place. Fifty Sunni families have taken refuge in Ibn Taymia (formerly Umm Al-Tubul) Mosque, having been evicted form Al-Jihad neighbourhood in southern Baghdad. Displaced Shia families now live in makeshift camps in Al-Kut Governorate, 120 kms southeast of Baghdad. For many Iraqis, this all is a part of a US scheme to divide and rule. And some argue that the events in Lebanon are part of that same scheme.