A Nation Teeters on Brink of Civil War

Times Staff Writer

As dusk thickened in the mainly Sunni neighborhood of Amariya, a cluster of men lined up outside a small bakery, waiting their turn to buy bread. The men grew anxious; the minutes seemed to drag.

Nobody wanted to linger in the streets. An extraordinary daytime curfew intended to stifle bloody fighting between Shiite and Sunni Muslims had been lifted for a few hours, and the men had ventured out in search of food.

“It’s very dangerous for us, standing like this,” one of them muttered. He looked to be in his 40s; just a few shoots of gray had begun to show in his hair. The others watched the street, squinting at the passing cars.


This week’s massive attack against one of Shiite Islam’s most sacred sites has provoked a crisis of sectarian strife and political paralysis. All over Iraq, vignettes of anxiety played out Friday as officials struggled to quell a savage wave of killings and mosque vandalism.

The sectarian attacks have forced the public to grapple with the possibility -- or probability, many Iraqis argue -- that they are on the verge of a civil war. Many fear it could prove even more bloody and heartbreaking than the fighting that has racked this country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

“My family and I are living in fear and anxiety,” said Abu Tamam, one of a handful of shopkeepers who opened up in Arasat, a mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood in the capital. The religious leadership “are against violence. But when passions and burning feelings explode, people lose control and lose their balance.”

The streets of Baghdad were choked shut Friday with checkpoints, lending neighborhoods an air of siege. Armed militiamen paced on the rooftops of the mosques in the eerily quiet afternoon.

When four o’clock finally came, people scurried from their homes, bought bread and meat and rushed back as darkness fell over the city. The curfew resumed at 8 p.m., and was expected to last at least until this afternoon. Only a few stores bothered to open their doors, and shoppers moved briskly, their faces set in grim unease.

“This will definitely start a civil war, eventually,” said Maye Salih Abbassi, a 38-year-old Shiite who studied French in college and is now a homemaker in Baghdad. “The only thing left for them to do is to go out and rape women, kidnap children and slaughter the men.”

Nervously, Abbassi thought back over her words.

“I hope the insurgents don’t hear this and start doing it,” she said. “It would make me feel guilty to give them ideas.”

It is not uncommon to hear Iraqis speaking of civil war as if it has become inevitable, as if the only questions worth asking are when it will begin, what will spark it -- or whether they will one day look back and realize that this civil war, this ambiguous threat, was already underway when the Golden Mosque in Samarra was blown up.

Others won’t talk about it at all, skittering away at the mention of “civil war” as if avoiding the thought can make it go away. And there are many Iraqis who believe that their country will still manage to steer clear of all-out conflict. But quietly, people are beginning to ponder how it would unfold.

“We’ve never had that experience before,” said Qassim Rubaii, a 49-year-old Shiite salesman. “For me, I cannot imagine myself killing a Sunni, or imagine a Sunni will kill me.”

“My daughter is married to a Sunni,” he said. “Does that mean I have to fight him?”

A sense of hardening identity seems to pervade the streets of Iraq; a note of defiance in the way that Sunnis and Shiites now speak of one another. Many display a new bitterness about the injustice meted out by the other sect. Despite calls for calm from clerics and political leaders, religious passions smolder.

“My father is Sunni and my mother is Shiite. I never knew the difference between these two sects before the occupation started,” said Umar Kahtan, a 19-year-old high school student who stood with other men in the streets of the middle-class neighborhood of Karada.

But now, he said, “there are people who would kill someone because his name is Umar or Ali.... The politicians aren’t doing enough to help protect the religious sites. They can’t even protect themselves.”

The split between the two sects stretches back centuries to the early days of Islam. But in today’s Iraq, the divide has a new relevance -- and the sense of injustice is aggravated with each killing, moment of fear and image of a mosque on fire.

“As a Sunni, I feel very much oppressed. All my rights have been taken away and I see myself as a victim,” said Qussay Emir, a 33-year-old lawyer who lives in the diverse city of Mosul. “When I hear about Sunni mosques being burned like this, it really breaks my heart. It’s something I will never forget nor forgive.”

Many Iraqis still cling to the withering illusion that they live in a nation without religious distinction. And yet the pervasive, growing idea of sectarian division shows itself in the small things they say: “I see my people getting killed,” said Issam Alrawi, a Sunni professor at Baghdad University. “I am now like a half-slaughtered bird.”

Take Jalal Abdalhasan Farhoud Saadi, a 38-year-old taxi driver in the southern city of Basra. A Shiite clad in a long black robe, Saadi was careful to point out that he bears no grudge against his Sunni neighbors -- not the ones next door, at least.

“I don’t mean to be rude against the Sunnis in Basra,” he said with a note of hometown pride. “I mean the Sunnis in the western region who hate us and consider us infidels, not Muslims.”

He went on to say that the burning of mosques was wrong “because they are for God, not the Sunnis.”

But the Sunni politicians want to be “the kings of Iraq,” he complained. And if another Shiite shrine should be attacked, he warned, “we will be forced to fight the Sunnis everywhere to save our sacred shrines.”

Hekmat Zaidi, a Sunni lawyer, stayed home all day Friday in the restive city of Baqubah, forbidding his children to leave the house. He is deeply upset, disappointed with the fledgling Iraqi government -- particularly in the Interior Ministry, which is widely seen by Sunnis as having been co-opted by Shiites.

“Their performance is very poor, and I expect if it goes on like this, there will be civil war,” he said by telephone.

“They stood watching all this violence and the burning of the mosques and did nothing. We Iraqis will be the only losers, in any case.”


Times staff writers Suhail Ahmad and Caesar Ahmed and special correspondents Asmaa Waguih and Shamil Aziz in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.