BALAD, IRAQ — There were no heroes here.
When gunmen murdered dozens of people in this once peaceful Shiite market city over two days last month, no one stepped in to stop the killing. Not U.S. forces, whose stated purposes in Iraq include preventing all-out civil war. Not the Iraqi security forces, who mostly turned a blind eye to the massacre. Not the people of Balad, who allowed decades of fear and hatred to overwhelm their better instincts.
Perhaps nothing could be done. Perhaps Iraq's Shiite-Sunni feuds have become so heated that not even 140,000 U.S. soldiers can stop the country's increasingly brutal civil war.
"They hate each other," said one U.S. officer in the Balad area, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on matters pertaining to Iraqi society. "How are you going to get rid of that? You're not going to give these guys sensitivity classes."
Balad, a city of 120,000 up the Tigris River from Baghdad, lies less than 15 miles from Logistics Support Area Anaconda, the largest U.S. military base in Iraq. A small forward operating base, Camp Paliwoda, lies just outside the city. But U.S. troops stuck by the mantra of letting Iraqis take the lead and gave the Shiite-dominated police force latitude as townspeople went on a murderous rampage.
"We didn't think it would happen on this scale," said Capt. Mark T. Jenner, intelligence officer of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, which was in the process of handing over the area to another U.S. unit when the slayings occurred.
Perhaps the most chilling thing about the massacre in Balad was that it was not the work of outside death squads. According to Iraqis and U.S. intelligence officials, it appears to have been the work of Shiite residents who turned on their neighbors.
"The ordinary people, some of them took their guns and did this thing," said Amira Baldawi, a Shiite member of parliament who is from Balad. "The city is under pressure all the time. There is a reaction to every action."
Usual calm is brokenThe killings began on a Friday afternoon, normally the day of rest in Muslim countries. Ajeel Mujamaie, a 30-year-old high school teacher of English and Arabic, was rushing his pregnant wife, Fadhilla, to the hospital and could tell that the usual calm of the day had been broken.
"There was a lot of tension and commotion in the area," he said.
Mujamaie got Fadhilla to the delivery room, then scouted the hospital for a doctor. He ran into a security guard he knew, a man named Abbas who was a relative by marriage. Abbas warned him to get out.
"He told me I have to leave," Mujamaie said. "He told me they will kill me."
Soon gunmen swarmed the hospital, aided by some of the employees. "They were from Balad," Mujamaie said of the men who guided the gunmen from room to room. "They were saying: 'Take this guy. Don't take this guy.' "
As Fadhilla writhed in pain, Abbas, who wore a police uniform, slipped the couple into their car and headed for a midwife outside the city center.
Across Balad, Sunnis like Mujamaie and his wife had begun to flee.
Deep-rooted tensionsFor decades this farming region north of Baghdad has been a caldron of mistrust between the Shiite Muslim tribes living in town and the Sunni Arab tribes spread out in the surrounding farmlands.
In the 1970s, the city became a stronghold of Shiite activists of the then-outlawed Islamic Dawa Party, which had strong ties to neighboring Iran. After the Iran-Iraq war erupted in 1980, President Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party supporters cracked down, executing Dawa members, uprooting orchards and seizing the property of well-to-do Shiites to hand over to Sunnis.
The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 upended the balance of power. Shiites began asserting their muscle, angering Sunnis. In 2004, a group loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr took over a Sunni mosque in downtown Balad, declaring it its own.
In February, when a bomb severely damaged the Shiite shrine of the Golden Dome in nearby Samarra, U.S. soldiers said they had to seal off Balad to prevent Shiites from heading there to exact revenge.
The tally of death squad abductions and shootings mounted. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers found the bodies on farms or floating down the Tigris.
Economic rivalry underlies some of the feuding. The Shiite Bani Tamim tribe in the city and the Sunni Mashadani in the countryside fight for control of trade routes and the transport of construction materials to Baghdad. Tribal vendettas add a complicated layer of bloodshed to the sectarian violence.
In recent months, Sunnis began complaining of Shiite thugs, allegedly with ties to the Sadr organization, manning checkpoints. Shiites, too, warned of a coming breaking point. In September, Baldawi sent a bundle of desperate letters from her constituents to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
"People complained that the situation is not at all secure," she said. "They wanted more security forces to protect the area."
Nevertheless, on Sept. 13, U.S. forces formally handed over control of the area to Iraqis.
The episodic killing continued. A Sunni man visiting the Balad hospital was found dead in the city in early October. On Oct. 6, a group of Sunnis attacked a Shiite-dominated Iraqi army unit. The soldiers killed two Sunni members of the Jabouri tribe.
The final trigger came in the early morning of Oct. 12: a shootout in which soldiers of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government killed an alleged Sunni insurgent. Townspeople, villagers and U.S. troops nervously awaited a Sunni reprisal. It came within hours.
Swarmed by gunmenMohammed Adnan Obeidi's mother had warned him not to take construction jobs in the Sunni village of Duluiya. But the 22-year-old Shiite's family is poor, and the Sunni merchant offering work seemed respectable enough. So on Oct. 12, Obeidi, his best friend, Thamer Azzawi, and 14 other men accepted the merchant's offer to rebuild his roof and headed to the village, across the Tigris from Balad.
They finished the job by midday and were heading back when they were swarmed by dozens of masked gunmen who blocked the road and began shouting "God is great!"
The gunmen boarded the workers' bus and demanded that they put their hands on their heads and their heads between their legs. The bus drove on for nearly an hour.
"I tried to see what was happening, but one of the gunmen hit me on the head with the butt of his rifle," Obeidi recalled.
Once the bus stopped, the men were ordered off, handcuffed and blindfolded. The gunmen had walkie-talkies and heavy-caliber machine guns. Azzawi begged for mercy. He was a Sunni, he pleaded. He lied and said that Obeidi, a member of a tribe that includes both sects, was a Sunni too.
"They let us go, only me and my Sunni friend," Obeidi said.
The two froze when they heard gunfire behind them, and walked on for nearly two hours. As night settled, they found a way back to Balad, where they told their stories to police.
The next morning, the bodies of the 14 workers were found on the outskirts of Duluiya. They had been shot at close range and bore signs of torture.
U.S. and Iraqi officials immediately recognized the threat the incident posed for the 200 or so Sunni families living in town in Balad. "It was outside the tribal boundaries," said Jenner, the U.S. intelligence officer. "It was strictly Sunni versus Shiite."
The provincial governor, a Sunni, headed for the city in an attempt to impose calm. But mistrustful Shiites at checkpoints reportedly refused to allow him to enter. Friday prayer leaders in Shiite and Sunni mosques issued calls for calm at noontime. They fell on deaf ears.
No outside jobThough suspicious of each other, Sunnis and Shiites in the Balad area lead intertwined lives. The Sunnis in the countryside grow produce, and the city serves as a commercial hub. Sunnis come into town to use the hospital, shop, make appointments with lawyers and buy and sell cars at auction lots.
When the retaliations against Sunnis began Friday afternoon, killer and victim probably knew each other.
Obeid Nawaf, 51, a Sunni real estate dealer, left for his small house in the countryside as soon as he heard about the slain workers. In the afternoon, he dispatched his brother and son to fetch supplies. He never saw them alive again.
The killings continued Saturday. For hours, mobs killed any Sunni men they encountered. A woman from Duluiya who identified herself only as Umm Mohammed said her 22-year-old son, Hamid, haplessly wandered into Balad for a shopping trip Saturday and was shot by Shiite gunmen.
The gunmen went to car auctions and seized Sunnis, killing them and burning their vehicles.
Hussein Azzawi, a 39-year-old used-car dealer from Duluiya, had sent two of his employees to sell cars in Balad. "They burned the corpses with the cars," he said. "They had committed no crime except they were Sunnis."
Nawaf, the real estate dealer, heard that some of the dead were being taken to the morgue of a nearby town. There he found the bodies of his son and brother. "It cannot be described," he said. "They were cut up and mutilated. There was acid on their faces."
Sunni political and religious leaders accused fighters linked to Sadr's Al Mahdi militia of streaming into the city and leading the killings at the request of Balad residents. But Balad's Shiite residents and U.S. forces reject that theory.
"We don't think it was the Mahdi army," said Capt. Matthew Thomas, the incoming intelligence officer of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment.
Capt. Keith L. Carter, a company commander whose area of responsibility included the city, probably knows contemporary Balad better than any other American official. "I don't think you could see violence on this scale by outsiders," he said.
Indeed, days before the attacks, the city's cellphone service had gone down because of an insurgent strike, cutting Balad off from outside communication.
The hatred that day was homegrown.
"There is no Sadr army in Balad and we never asked for their interference," said Tahseen Rasheed, a resident. "It was the families of the victims who decided to retaliate. They armed themselves and stood on the road and started to kill whichever suspects they could find."
Offer of help rejectedThe U.S. military monitored events from its base just outside Balad, where its role in policing conflicts has become increasingly marginal. "We could tell the sectarian tension was flaring up," Thomas said. "We got reports of Shiite retaliation against Sunnis."
By Friday afternoon, U.S. forces dispatched a platoon-sized unit into town. The soldiers offered to help the local Iraqi forces keep order. Iraqi officers declined, and the Americans left.
At some point on Saturday, U.S. forces got in touch with Iraqis and told them to establish checkpoints around the city and retrieve bodies. At 5 p.m., city officials declared a 48-hour curfew for Balad and Duluiya, with cars barred from the streets and no traffic allowed in or out of either town.
Nearly 30 hours after the discovery of the bodies of the Shiite workmen, the retaliatory killings subsided.
By then, 36 to 70 Sunnis had been killed in a city about the size of Thousand Oaks. Hassanian Baldawi, an official at the Balad hospital, said two days after the massacre that the facility had received 80 bodies over the previous four days, including those of women.
The Americans' hands-off approach stunned many. "Everyone was asking why the American forces aren't intervening," said Ismail Amili, a 45-year-old hospital employee. "Is it because such bloodshed serves their interests?"
U.S. forces here abide by a tough-love approach, forcing Iraqis to take the lead. "While we probably have the capability of sending all of our forces and barricading the city, it is a good thing that the Iraqis are taking over," Thomas said.
But perhaps U.S. soldiers — consciously or unconsciously — do make a grim calculation that benefits them. Sunni insurgents in the countryside attack American troops as well as Shiites. By contrast, Shiite gunmen often welcome Americans to their towns and primarily target young Sunni men suspected of being insurgents.
Whereas American soldiers get dirty looks in Sunni villages, they can walk through downtown Balad with little fear.
"Honestly, it makes our job easier," Sgt. Dominie Price, 25, of Wheaton, Ill., said of the Shiites targeting Sunnis. "There's less insurgents attacking us."
Still, even with Americans taking a back-seat approach, Balad is better off with them around, Carter said.
If the U.S. left tomorrow, he has no doubt what would happen: "Shiite gunmen would come to power in Balad and would form a defensive barrier," he said. "The Sunni insurgents would lay siege to the town."
Shortly after the massacre, a reconciliation conference was held in the provincial capital of Tikrit. U.S. officials hailed it as "a clear sign of solidarity among civic, military and religious leaders of Balad." But it failed to produce any political resolution or ease much of the friction between Shiites and Sunnis or the various tribes.
Despite talk of a truce, Sunnis fire mortar rounds every night into Balad and have killed and injured dozens. Shiite police and soldiers battle Sunni gunmen nightly for control of a checkpoint on the edge of the city that serves as the gateway for food, gas and people. The checkpoint has been hit so many times by bombs that its concrete watchtower has collapsed.
And more than half of the 200 or so Sunni families who lived in Balad before the massacre have fled for the countryside, terrified of more bloodshed at the hands of their neighbors.
On a recent day, a visiting U.S. officer praised a ragtag group of Iraqi soldiers and police guarding the checkpoint, called Delta 49. The men had captured two suspected Sunni fighters and killed one. The fighters allegedly were trying to get into town with a cache of dynamite and other munitions.
The 20 young men explained that they were volunteers protecting the gates of the city from the Sunni intruders outside.
"The terrorists come from this area, this area and this area," said police officer Saad Fakhreen Hassan, pointing to the green countryside. "We came here to challenge the terrorists."
Asked about the events of Oct. 13-14, he denies that there were any reprisals against Sunnis in Balad. The Sunni families who left did so because they wanted to, he said.
"Balad right now is surrounded by terrorists, and all the villages are filled with terrorists," he said. "Balad is a peace-loving city."
Mujamaie sees things differently. He and his wife reached the midwife that Friday afternoon, and they now have a baby daughter named Noor.
"The people in Balad are divided," he said. "There are those against the killings and those in favor of them. But I will never go back to Balad. We saw what kind of killers those people are."
email@example.comTimes staff writers Raheem Salman, Suhail Ahmad, Zeena Hamid, Saif Rasheed, Saif Hameed and Said Rifai and special correspondents in Balad, Duluiya, Samarra and Tikrit contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times