Iraq: sectarian cleansing escalates

With each horrific escalation they always say the same thing: civil war is “imminent”. At what point do we acknowledge that civil war has arrived? As we have noted before, everybody—left, right and center—seems to have an interest in denying the obvious reality. From Newsday, July 10:

Sunnis ID’d, executed
Morning attack on a Baghdad neighborhood thought to be revenge for a mosque bombing; security adviser warns of imminent ‘civil war’

BAGHDAD – Shia militiamen rampaged through a Baghdad neighborhood yesterday morning, killing more than 50 people and leaving many of the bodies littering the streets, according to Iraqi officials and witnesses. The attacks were apparently retaliation for a car bombing at a Shia mosque the night before.

Hours later, two car bombs exploded near a Shia mosque in the city’s north, killing 17 people and wounding 38 in what appeared to be a reprisal attack, police said.

Black-clad Shia militiamen manned checkpoints on roads into most major Shia neighborhoods to guard against revenge attacks, as scattered clashes occurred across the Iraqi capital.

Sunni leaders expressed outrage over the killings, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, appealed for calm, warning that the nation stood “in front of a dangerous precipice.”

The dramatic display of sectarian killing began when armed men, some dressed in black, entered the al-Jihad neighborhood of western Baghdad. They set up checkpoints to stop cars, burst into homes, and singled out Sunni Arab residents for execution, witnesses and police said. Some of the corpses were handcuffed and pocked with bullet holes while others were pegged with nails, witnesses said.

Police picked up 57 bodies from the neighborhood, and three Interior Ministry police were also killed there, said Ali Hussein, a commando with the Interior Ministry who ferried bodies to the Yarmouk Hospital. Gen. Saad Mohammed al-Tamini of the Interior Ministry confirmed that more than 50 people were killed.

Residents of al-Jihad identified the gunmen as members of the Mahdi Army, the powerful militia controlled by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In the past three days Iraqi troops, with the support of U.S.-led coalition forces, have raided the homes of some leaders of the Mahdi Army homes and detained them.

Presidential security adviser Wafiq al-Samaraie told Al-Jazeera television that “we are at the gates of civil war” unless “exceptional measures” are taken.

A senior government official, Haidar Majid, contested the police figures, saying late yesterday that only nine people died in al-Jihad. Police Lt. Mohammed Khayoun insisted the figure of 41 was correct – with 24 bodies taken to Yarmouk hospital and 17 to the city morgue.

Regardless, the brazen attack was likely to further inflame Shia-Sunni tensions and undermine public confidence in Iraq’s new unity government.

Iraq’s deputy prime minister for security affairs, Salam al-Zawbae, accused the defense and interior ministries of working with the militias to carry out the violence.

“Interior and defense ministries are infiltrated [by militias] and there are officials who lead brigades who are involved in this,” Zawbae said on al-Jazeera television. “What is happening now is an ugly slaughter.”

Officials in Sadr’s organization denied the Mahdi Army’s involvement. Confronting the Mahdi Army has not been easy for U.S. and Iraqi forces, which put down two Sadr-led uprisings in 2004. While U.S. officials have blamed the group for contributing to the spike in sectarian violence here in recent months, politicians loyal to Sadr control more than 30 seats in Iraq’s parliament and several cabinet posts, making the militia a politically risky target.

See our last posts on Iraq and the interminable sectarian cleansing.