Revenge Killings Fuel Fear of Escalation in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Hassan Lami was herding some sheep to a garbage-strewn city lot to graze when six masked men, using guns with silencers, shot him more than 30 times.

As far as anyone can determine, the just-married 20-year-old was killed that July morning because he was a Shiite Muslim.

One week later, another 20-year-old was gunned down, this time by men who didn’t bother to wear masks. In his neighborhood, the only reason anyone can think of that Ahmed Dhirgham was killed is that he was a Sunni whose father had worked for the Iraqi intelligence service under Saddam Hussein.

In the last six weeks in the Ghazaliya neighborhood on Baghdad’s western edge, where both young men lived, more than 30 people have been killed in what appear to be purely sectarian attacks. Although other forms of violence, such as suicide bombings, have destabilized Iraq, many fear that the Shiite-Sunni targeted killings that have escalated in Baghdad and beyond are tipping the nation toward civil war.


The attention of the Iraqi elite and the media has been on the effort to draft a constitution, but the failure to stem the wave of sectarian killings could pose a greater threat to the country’s stability than the failure to reach a constitutional consensus, said several Iraqi government officials who asked not to be named because they did not want to be seen as pointing fingers at members of another sect.

“The government now is so inefficient at controlling the situation that the security situation has deteriorated, and so the political situation has deteriorated,” said a senior government official who took part in the negotiations on the constitution.

“They have to get security under control, otherwise it’s not going to matter what we do here,” he said, speaking from an office in the heavily fortified Green Zone.

“People don’t want a constitution -- they want security,” said a former general in the Iraqi army, a Sunni who lives in Ghazaliya, home to Shiites and Sunnis alike. The man, who is known in his neighborhood as Abu Arab, asked that his full name not be used because he was afraid of becoming the target of assassins.

The tit-for-tat killings now stalk many of Baghdad’s mixed neighborhoods, where Sunnis and Shiites used to live in peace. Often, the people killed, such as the two young men in Ghazaliya, have no involvement in politics.

Iraqi government statistics show that targeted killings have almost doubled over the last 12 months despite increases in the numbers of policemen on the streets and Iraqi national guard patrols. In July, nearly 700 of the 1,100 bodies brought to Baghdad’s central morgue had fatal gunshot wounds. There are no figures for those that fail to make it to the morgue.

“The number of gunshot cases we see now is huge,” said professor Abed Razaq Ibaidi, acting director of the Central Institute of Forensic Medicine in Baghdad, the largest morgue in the country.

Doctors believe that most gunshot victims are the targets of assassination-style attacks because they have multiple bullet wounds, many of them around the chest. “Most of the time they use machine guns, and it [seems] intentional because ... they shoot more than once around the chest area,” Ibaidi said.

Sometimes the slayings verge on the realm of massacre. In April, dozens of bodies, many believed to be Shiite villagers, were found in the Tigris River south of Baghdad. In May, 14 corpses, said to be those of members of a Sunni Arab clan, were discovered in a ditch in Baghdad. In July, the bodies of 12 Shiites were found in an empty lot in a Sunni enclave near Baghdad’s southern edge.

The dead are left by the side of the road, in empty lots, slumped in cars or minibuses pocked with bullet marks. There are so many that the Central Institute has nearly tripled its pathology staff from nine doctors to 25, and they work almost round the clock.

Families in the ethnic minority in neighborhoods such as Ghazaliya are selling their homes and moving to places where they are in the majority. Without more than anecdotal evidence, it’s unclear whether this could become an exodus. Hassan Lami’s family is among those planning to leave: It has put its house up for sale.

Once people start to leave, the tide of instability can be hard to reverse, said Ed Joseph, a fellow at the Wilson Institute who worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina during that Balkan country’s war in the mid-1990s.

He said the likelihood of civil war increases if, after attacks targeting a community, other members of the minority population flee, as Muslims in Bosnia did after villages were attacked by ethnic Serb soldiers.

“Once people leave en masse, they must find a place to go,” he said. “They go toward places that are safe ... where ‘their kind’ is in charge. Then, in turn, hostility there turns toward the minorities in the areas they have fled to.

“The question is: How does the minority community react after one of theirs is killed? If they don’t flee, if they just hang around and then order up some reprisal killing a little later ... it’s probably less likely to be civil war.

“But if they start leaving, then watch out,” he added. “Huge danger. That is what people only belatedly realized in the Balkans: Once displacement starts, it is a never-ending cycle.”

So far, the Shiite clergy has counseled restraint amid suicide bombings that have targeted largely Shiite crowds, such as the attack in the town of Musayyib in mid-July that killed more than 90 people. But it appears that some Shiites are seeking revenge nonetheless.

Further complicating matters are the sectarian alliances of the security services. The Interior Ministry and the police are viewed as predominantly Shiite, while the Iraqi army and some other Defense Ministry units and officers are thought of as Sunni. And killers sometimes disguise themselves as security officers, making it difficult to know whether there are rogue units.

The Ghazaliya neighborhood offers a disturbing picture of the local landscape of sectarian terrorism. To enter Ghazaliya is to enter a world in which gunmen can kill at will and families sell their longtime homes at a loss or abandon them rather than risk becoming the next victims.

Ghazaliya was built as a bedroom community for members of the Iraqi army and intelligence services; it is at least 85% Sunni, the minority that dominated Iraq under Hussein.

The backdrop to the recent killings there is a neighborhood battle over mosque construction. The fight started almost immediately after the U.S.-led invasion, when Shiite imams came to the neighborhood and handed out permits to Shiite residents to build a hussainiya -- the Shiite name for neighborhood mosques. The site the Shiites chose was already spoken for by Sunnis, who had their own plans to build a mosque there.

But the Shiites commenced construction, and a popular local Sunni doctor protested. Soon after, he was killed by gunmen who burst into his clinic after his last patient had left.

In the fall of 2004, neighborhood Shiites invited pilgrims who were walking to the holy city of Karbala to stop for food and tea. More than 1,000 Shiites rallied at the newly built mosque -- an act that local Sunnis viewed as a provocative flexing of muscle designed to remind them that Shiites now held the balance of power.

A few weeks later, a Shiite butcher was slain. He had been planning to build a second hussainiya.

“A day later, another Shiite named Amar was killed and then we started to forget how many were killed,” said Ahmed Najim, a neighborhood resident until two months ago, when his family moved out of fear. Najim, who still works in the hussainiya as a janitor, accompanied the Lami family to an interview with a reporter.

This summer, the number of slayings accelerated sharply. Stop almost anyone on the street in Ghazaliya, it seems, and they know someone who has been killed.

Graffiti recently scrawled on a neighborhood wall near the small shopping center where the Lami family has its butcher shop read, “We will kill 99 Shiites here; we have already killed 16.”

On the day family members talked with a reporter, the number had risen to 21. By the beginning of September, the toll had risen to 25, including a patron of the hussainiya who was killed the morning after he delivered 24 fans to the mosque as a gift. Two more Sunnis were killed in the neighborhood in the same period.

Among those killed in recent weeks was Sadek Khafaji, a 36-year-old janitor at the hussainiya. He was gunned down just after dark as he tried to repair the wire running from a neighborhood generator to the mosque, said Najim, 24, who had been close to the slain man.

By contrast, most of the Sunnis targeted in Ghazaliya were affiliated with the former regime, neighborhood residents said. Neighborhood Sunnis believe that those killed were on lists compiled by the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia allied with the leading Shiite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

“Badr came in with lists of names of Iraqi officers, especially Iraqi air force officers who bombed during the Iraq-Iran war; high-ranking Baathists were also on the lists. Organized liquidation of those people started,” said Abu Arab, the former general who lives in Ghazaliya. He rarely leaves his house now and usually sits in a rear, windowless room.

“A pilot who lived about 500 feet from me was killed because he had flown missions during the Iraq-Iran war,” he said.

In early August, gunmen attacked worshipers at a Sunni mosque in the neighborhood just after the midday prayer, said Abu Mohammed, another former Iraqi army general who had stopped by to talk with Abu Arab and also asked that his full name not be used.

“Everyone knows that people do not bring their guns into the mosque, so they opened fire right as they were coming out of the prayer,” he said. “The imam was killed and several others too.”

In Ghazaliya, Sunnis believe it is Shiites who are killing them and Shiites believe it is Sunnis, although Sunni residents say they still talk to Shiite neighbors and vice versa. But the generosity is dwindling.

Dhirgham’s mother, distraught as she stood at the threshold of her house, blamed the Shiites, cursing Abdelaziz Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Badr Brigade.

“It all comes from the vicious head of Al Hakim, and the Badr forces,” said the grieving mother, who wouldn’t give her name. “This is not a fair life.”

The Lami family makes similar accusations about Sunnis, although its comments are more veiled.

“There is no condemnation from surrounding Sunni mosques about these assassinations,” said Qassim Lami, 40, the brother of the slain sheepherder.

“President Bush said, referring to Sept. 11, whoever does not sympathize with us is against us,” he said. “These Sunnis are not condemning it -- they are against us.”

His mother nodded. “The people doing this to us, they are all from Ghazaliya, all our neighbors are Sunnis,” said Nooriya Mussawi Lami.

As the Lami family and two friends left the hotel where they had agreed to be interviewed about Ghazaliya, each of the men stopped at the front desk and picked up the handgun that he had left there on his way in.

Ahmed Najim gave a tight smile as he tucked his gun into his pants.

“Just remember,” he said, “tomorrow you may hear I am dead.”

Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Suhail Hussain contributed to this report.