Iraq’s civil war makes for intimate enemies

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Times Staff Writer

When a friend from the old neighborhood rang Abu Ali after sunrise one day this month to tell him that his house had been destroyed, the middle-aged Sunni confessed to himself that he felt happy.

He turned to his wife in bed and told her that the Americans had flattened their home in the Washash neighborhood and killed some of the Shiite militia members who had kicked them out last September.

They were people he had lived next to for years, people he had said hello to every day.

People who had killed his teenage son three months ago, leaving him with a bullet hole in his eye and forehead.


“God took our revenge for us,” his wife, a Shiite, answered.

He thought about the friend who had called him with the news. His name was Sattar, and like the men who killed his son, he was a member of Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.

He replayed their conversation in his head.

“These are the same men who stole my house and killed my son,” Abu Ali, who didn’t want his formal name used, had blurted into the receiver.

His friend fired back: “What about the women and children who were there?”

“This is God’s will,” he answered. “They deserved what happened.”

The two said goodbye. It was normal for them to talk, and Sattar would call back later with more information about the damage.

The two men had been friends for 10 years, and they were friends still, despite Sattar’s alliance with the locals who had forced Abu Ali from his home. Sattar remained loyal because Abu Ali had stood up for him when Sattar’s own brothers tried to cheat their sibling out of money. Still, Abu Ali thought that his old friend was easily frightened and would never help him in times of danger.

Their friendship shows the very intimate nature of the war in Iraq -- a war in which your enemies are often people you’ve known much of your life; in which your neighbors are often behind the crimes committed against you; in which every slight, every misdeed, every injustice is recorded and the desire for vengeance runs deep.


Segregation spreads

As U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and President Bush laud the success of the Baghdad security plan and hail the start of a return to normality, the Iraqi capital is awash with at least 171,000 displaced people, including Abu Ali. Many Sunnis and Shiites have retreated to virtually segregated districts sealed off by blast walls and razor wire to protect themselves from their rival religious sect.


Even U.S. commanders in Iraq acknowledge that there is no easy way to repair the damage of the country’s civil war, no easy way to return people to their old lives. They say that whatever comes next in Baghdad will be a break from the past.

The morning his home was destroyed, friends started visiting Abu Ali at 8 a.m. in Ghazaliya, where he had lived for a year. Everyone asked him the same question: Would the Americans compensate him?

At noon, the satellite news channels started broadcasting video of the gutted block. Only then did his wife start crying. People from Washash said that innocent civilians had been killed, but the U.S. military said fighters had sprayed gunfire from rooftops. Police put the death toll at 14.

Abu Ali didn’t even care that the house was gone. He associated it with his dead son, Ali.

“Everything is a bad memory,” he said.

He had lived on a quiet side street in Washash. It was affordable on what he earned running a small textile shop that manufactured women’s clothing. He had even gotten along well with the Mahdi Army. Some of his neighbors had joined the militia and he readily paid the protection fee of $3 a month for them to guard his district.

“It was a good arrangement,” he said.


Mosque is bombed

Then, in February 2006, the bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra changed everything. The militia began targeting Sunnis, and Abu Ali watched as his friends and acquaintances started to vanish. An Arabic-language teacher at Washash’s Dakar secondary school was standing outside when men in a car raked him with bullets.

“He was very old. He even taught those a bit younger than me,” Abu Ali said. “He’d scold his students on the street for smoking cigarettes. If they saw him coming, they would throw them away out of respect.”


Some militiamen decided to kill the local drunk, a Shiite named Abbas, who was frequently seen strolling the neighborhood and whose favorite drink was arrack. Six months after Abu Ali fled Washash, his favorite cobbler was killed when militiamen found him drinking alcohol in the area’s date orchards.

“Maybe 100 people I know were killed in Washash, if you count both Sunnis and Shiites,” he said about his neighborhood in western Baghdad, which was a mixed area, with more Shiites than Sunnis.

But Abu Ali thought he was safe. Everyone loved him and his six sons and two daughters. He was confident that his neighbors would not betray him. Most of the young men on his street had joined the Mahdi Army, but he had been good to everybody.

There was Tayseer, whose mother was a Sunni, and whose uncle Ahmed socialized with Abu Ali. The year before, Abu Ali had rescued Tayseer’s father, Majid, when he was detained by insurgents on his way to Ghazaliya to buy ice. The militants had phoned Abu Ali and he swore that Majid was a Sunni.

Then there were his neighbors Uday and Luay, whose father abandoned them at an early age. Abu Ali said he had always helped them. He would stop by to see their mother and ask whether she needed anything and offer her clothing from his workshop. Her children used to come over to the house.

After Samarra, none of that mattered.

His neighbors were emboldened and wanted his house for their relatives. First Tayseer told Abu Ali’s sons in a friendly way that it would be better if they left Washash.


Then Tayseer’s uncle Hassan visited Abu Ali. He advised him to leave Washash by September and suggested that Abu Ali rent his house to him. Abu Ali ignored the deadline. He didn’t want to leave his white stucco home, with its evergreen bushes and jasmine vines.

He was determined to wait at least until Hassan was forced to rent another house. He said that for 15 years he had disliked Hassan, who was in the Mahdi Army, and would rather rent his home to anyone else.

When he was sure Hassan had signed a lease, Abu Ali loaded up his expensive furniture, his sewing machines, television and dining room table and left for Ghazaliya, where his two sisters lived.


‘He was brave’

Meanwhile, his son Ali had been hired to work in west Baghdad’s Mansour district at a bakery delivering cakes with his Shiite friend Haidar. In June, they had finished a delivery and were on their way back to Mansour when two cars blocked their vehicle. A group of armed men blindfolded them.

Haidar managed to convince them he was Shiite and swore that Ali was as well. The men answered, “We know who he is, we’ve been watching him and he is Sunni.” They threw Haidar into a car and left him at a roundabout in Washash. Early the next morning, Ali, only 17, thin and barely 5 feet tall, was found on the street parallel to the house where he grew up.

“How could they kill someone so feeble and small?” Abu Ali said. “He was brave. The biggest proof is when I found him. He was smiling and his one eye was opened.”


After he was freed, Haidar fled Baghdad, terrified that his kidnappers would seek him out. But Haidar’s uncle told Abu Ali that one of the kidnappers had been called Tayseer. Abu Ali became convinced that his old neighbors were responsible.

After his home was destroyed, one of his relatives went to the funeral for some of those killed. A mourner told him to tell Abu Ali: “All debts have been canceled.”

Abu Ali agreed.

“All I want is no more death, no more killing,” he said. “I’m a peace-loving person. I don’t want to hurt anybody.”


Special correspondents contributed to this report.