When the “black shirts” come back, the neighbors of the mosque will be ready to fight.
The Sunni Arab men of the district have posted plainclothes spies on the corners to look out for suspicious strangers. They keep their cellphones close at hand, waiting for the ring that will call them to arms. When it comes, the men will pour from the surrounding homes, guns blazing.
Faced with the growth of Shiite militias such as the black-shirted Al Mahdi army and deadly abuses by the Shiite-dominated police forces, Sunnis in mixed-sect neighborhoods and cities throughout Iraq are stashing guns in their mosques and knitting themselves into militias of their own.
“We’ve made an agreement with the neighbors that if we have another attack, they’ll pick up their weapons and fight the invaders,” said Fares Mahmoud, deputy preacher of the El Koudiri Mosque here in the middle-class neighborhood of Arasat. “We are depending on the soul of the people to protect us.”
In the last week, U.S. troops have clashed with Shiite militias, and American officials have expressed concern about their growing power. On the other side of Iraq’s sectarian divide, the emergence of armed bands of Sunnis, often from middle-class or secular backgrounds, presents a disturbing indication of how close Iraq is to all-out sectarian war.
The Sunni neighborhood militias add yet another armed element to the Iraqi scene, which already features Sunni insurgents -- often militant Islamists or former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling elite -- who have been battling Iraqi and U.S. security forces for three years.
Among the Sunnis, “you have the [militant Islamic] Takfiris, the old Baathists, you have the people who feel they have been marginalized, you have Arab nationalists. If each of these groups is going to have its own militia, then God help us,” said Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni legislator and the temporary speaker of the new Iraqi parliament.
“Unfortunately, the last election showed one thing: In order to win, you have to have a lot of money and you have to have your own militia,” he said.
Amid the rising violence, many Iraqis feel they have little choice but to arm themselves and their neighbors.
“In Baghdad, for example, there is a perception that the police are not really there to protect them,” said a Western official in the capital who would not speak on the record because of the political sensitivity of the topic. But “it is not an acceptable answer to bend to the presence of a militia to guarantee a particular neighborhood.”
An escalation in sectarian violence could stir neighboring Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to funnel arms or money into Iraq to support Sunnis there, some analysts fear. Sunni Arabs across the region have regarded the growing strength of Iraq’s Shiites -- not to mention the swelling influence of Iran, which is already heavily involved in backing Shiite groups -- with great trepidation.
“This is a new stage -- it’s not a traditional, classical civil war, but it’s a sort of civil war,” said Ismael Zayer, editor of the Iraqi newspaper Al Sabah Al Jadid. “At the end of the day, if nobody will protect them and the government won’t intervene, then they have to protect themselves. But if you ask me, I don’t like it. I don’t like Sunnis or Shiites to have arms like this.”
Like many Sunnis across Iraq, worshipers at the El Koudiri Mosque have absorbed a bitter lesson from the wave of killings and vandalism that convulsed the country after the recent bombing of a Shiite shrine: They can’t count on anybody but themselves for protection.
One afternoon shortly after the Feb. 22 attack on the shrine in Samarra, vanloads of Shiite gunmen pulled up to the mosque gates in a rain of machine-gun fire, congregants said. They shot their way into the courtyard, a grassy nook where sparrows dart among rose bushes, and fired a rocket-propelled grenade through the mosque window. The battered mosque remains a glaring reminder of Sunni vulnerability.
“The situation is escalating to the worst,” Mahmoud, the preacher, said. “That’s why we’re organizing ourselves.”
Shiite militias are a longtime feature of Iraqi politics. Operating out of the Kurdish region in the country’s north, the southern marshes and across the border in Iran, militiamen waged a low-level guerrilla war against Hussein before his Sunni-led regime was toppled in 2003. Shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, the followers of fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr organized themselves into a militia in the slums of Baghdad.
Under Hussein, the majority Shiites were brutally repressed whereas Sunnis were relatively privileged. These days, however, it’s the Sunnis who find themselves increasingly disenfranchised and under fire as Shiite militias grow stronger -- and lay down deep roots in the Interior Ministry, where officers have been accused of forming death squads to target Sunnis.
Dozens of Sunni men turn up dead nearly every week here in an informal campaign that resembles sectarian cleansing, and many Sunni houses of worship have been damaged.
As the death toll climbs and anger flares over attacks on mosques, Sunnis are increasingly threatening to fight back.
“The Sunnis are not that weak. They are adding force, but they haven’t used that force yet,” warned Alaa Makki, a senior leader in the Iraqi Islamic Party, the main Sunni party. “They can connect themselves, they can organize themselves, they can face the Shia.”
Unlike Shiite militias, which are tightly organized under the overarching authority of national leaders and clerics such as Sadr, Sunni bands remain small and scattered.
Still, they are dangerous -- and their anger runs deep.
“We’ll face violence with violence,” said Adnan Abbas Allawi, a 35-year-old Sunni pharmacy manager who was at a hospital in downtown Baghdad one recent afternoon. “This decision was forced on us. We don’t want to do this, but it’s not possible to see our mosques burned and insulted. Patience has its limits.”
Allawi’s 21-year-old cousin had been caught a few days earlier in one of Baghdad’s endless car bombings. His face still speckled with dried blood, the young man lay moaning beneath a flowered sheet. Shrapnel had lodged into his chest, and his left arm was smashed.
Family members sat around his sagging hospital cot with grim faces.
“If at any point they tell us to move, then we will all form militias. We are all armed,” Allawi said, looking at his cousin. “One little signal and you’ll see us in the streets.”
The attacks against Sunni mosques have struck a particularly raw nerve, drawing out a deep-seated conviction that there is a religious obligation to fight back.
From the minarets of mosques, a call to arms has begun to pour forth. “I order you, it’s a fatwa [religious edict]. Everyone should have a weapon in his house, it’s better than owning a satellite dish.... Buy a weapon instead,” a Sunni sheik in the southern city of Basra said during a recent Friday sermon.
“Anyone who will not follow is a coward.”
On a recent gray afternoon, two worshipers who had appointed themselves guard sat in a small, rundown mosque in a mixed Baghdad neighborhood.
“We will keep on defending the mosque until we die,” said Amar Hussein, a mosque caretaker with a shock of bright red hair.
“What interests us is to defend our house of worship,” agreed Karar Radi, sitting at his side in the courtyard. The vulnerability of their sect was driven home a month ago, when masked men arrived at the home of the mosque’s preacher. The imam was led out into the winter night and has not been heard from again.
The congregants were desperate. First they looked for him in hospitals. Then they gathered their resolve and went looking at the morgue. Finally, they began to hunt through garbage dumps for his body. They found nothing. The arithmetic of today’s Iraq suggests that he is probably dead by now.
“The Sunnis consider themselves enemies of the Shiites,” Radi said, “and vice versa.”
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux contributed to this report.