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Death’s at the Door in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- The uniformed gunmen knocked politely on Hamid Shammari’s door.

They took away his 20-year-old son, promising to let him go the next day. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since that dreadful Sunday that changed the Jihad neighborhood of western Baghdad, and perhaps the rest of Iraq.

For several hours on the morning of July 9, Jihad became a place of unspeakable brutality, not so much for the wanton bloodshed that has become a daily part of Iraqi life, but for the systematic nature of the killings. At least 36 and possibly as many as 55 Sunni Arab men were executed in what appears to have been a revenge operation condoned or even overseen by law enforcement officials.

The shooting began early, in ferocious barrages that shook the neighborhood. Shiite youths acting in apparent collaboration with police officials cordoned off the area with barbed wire. Gunmen stood guard at checkpoints and prevented many from leaving. And later, men in police uniforms went door-to-door holding lists of names.

Witnesses say the Jihad massacre, which many Iraqis consider a disquieting watershed in the country’s descent into an undeclared civil war between Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions, was carried out with clocklike precision as residents cowered in their homes making panicked cellphone calls to U.S. security forces, the Iraqi equivalent of 911 and, in one case, a commander in a Shiite militia.

Iraq’s Interior Ministry vehemently denies that police took part in the slayings. One ranking official, speaking on condition he not be named, said police commandos rushed to Jihad that day and restored order as “violence broke out among civilians.” The U.S. military also defended its role, saying it responded as soon as Iraqi police said it was needed.

Authorities did not act until 2 1/2 to four hours after the operation started, residents contend. The few hours were all the assailants needed. With shocking speed, lives built up over decades came crashing down, and a neighborhood was crushed within the grinding gears of Iraq’s sectarian war.

*

Jihad was a desolate wasteland along the west Baghdad road to the international airport until a few decades ago, when the government began selling the land cheaply. With a 1-year-old daughter and a son on the way, Shammari cobbled together his savings 20 years ago and plunked it down on a plot of land in a neighborhood named “Holy War.”

A new sewage system was put in place, attracting doctors and other well-to-do folks to the area. The neighborhood’s schools were spacious, with large, well-appointed classrooms that drew educated Iraqi families keen on bright futures for their children. The neighbors were “all part of one family,” said Shammari, a 53-year-old Sunni Arab schoolteacher and engineer.

“All afternoon, we spent time in the streets, playing and having fun with our friends,” said Lina Nader, a 25-year-old secretary who moved to the neighborhood when she was a child. “We were roaming through the area in groups on bicycles.”

But tensions always existed between the Sunnis in Jihad and the poorer, mostly Shiite residents in the adjacent Furat neighborhood, as well as the wealthier intelligence officers for Saddam Hussein who were moving in. As sanctions wore the country down in the 1990s, the Jihad enclave became mixed, with Shiites moving into the Sunni areas and vice versa.

Phone lines were destroyed in the U.S. bombing campaign three years ago, and were never fully restored, further cutting the district off from the rest of the capital. As the Sunni rebellion lunged into Baghdad from western cities, Jihad was considered a potential haven for insurgents and found itself in the line of fire as a frequent target of U.S. military operations.

Yet the real troubles between Sunnis and Shiites in Jihad began only four months ago, said Yacoub Youssef, the city councilman whose district includes Jihad.

A Shiite would get killed. A Sunni would get killed. A car would blow up in front of a Shiite mosque. A pair of Sunnis would get abducted and be found later, with bullet holes to the skull and bearing signs of torture.

The situation began deteriorating rapidly about a month ago, residents say. Shammari recalled how a Shiite cigarette vendor was shot to death, followed quickly by the slayings of a Sunni owner of a generator shop and a Shiite barber, who was gunned down along with several customers in his salon. A Sunni butcher was killed. His tribesmen retaliated by killing a number of suspected Shiite militiamen.

“Still, it was semi-calm,” Shammari recalled. “You could move around the streets. It was possible to stay out until 8:30 p.m.”

But the tit-for-tat killings continued to escalate. A car bomb struck a checkpoint of the Shiite-dominated police commando force July 2, killing five. On July 7, a car bomb exploded near the Fakhri Shanshal Mosque during Friday prayers at that Sunni house of worship. Five people were killed, including two children, police and the U.S. military said.

The next night, another car bomb went off, this time in front of the Zahra Hosseiniyeh Mosque, a Shiite house of worship, as evening prayers ended shortly before 9 p.m. The bombing killed 12 Iraqis and wounded 18 others, according to a U.S. military report.

Soon afterward, the U.S. military reported hearing celebratory gunfire near a Sunni mosque in the area.

*

As early as 7 a.m. the next day, the counterattack began, residents said.

“We heard the firing from the street behind our house,” said Mais Haithem Sheikhly, a 22-year-old graduate student. “We heard a woman shouting and screaming.”

At 8 a.m., Russool Fehed, a 23-year-old employee at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, began her seven-minute walk to the bus stop. Young men roaming side streets advised her to go back home, but she continued. She quickly boarded a minibus and peered through the window.

Across the intersection, a group of gunmen emerged from another minibus and began spreading out on the streets. Then she saw three bodies on the road. “I saw them with my own eyes,” she said.

Shammari left the house at 8:30 a.m. to line up for gasoline for his car. He was stopped immediately by young men who had set up a roadblock at the end of his street. They told him to go home. He assumed there had been an attack on police commandos, who often deputized local teenagers to block off the streets. He noticed that they had placed barbed wire around the neighborhood.

“They were neighborhood kids,” he said. “They were Shiites. I know the faces, but I don’t know the names.”

Another Jihad resident, who asked that his name not be used, said the checkpoints were set up at 500-yard intervals, with Shiite militiamen blocking off intersections and checking identification cards for given names and tribal affiliations that denote Sunnis.

Back at home, Shammari heard gunfire. Some minutes later, he again tried to leave the neighborhood, this time taking his two oldest daughters along.

He made it to the local bus station, where he spotted a group of gunmen in their early 20s, again men he recognized as locals. They pulled nine young men out of a bus. The gunmen lined them up and shot them dead.

“I know the faces, but I don’t know the names,” he repeated. “They killed them in front of my eyes.”

He rushed back home. “I was afraid they would kill me and my daughters,” he said.

Families hunkered down in their homes, listening in terror as gunfire erupted and stories of mayhem came pouring in by cellphone. The gunmen were breaking into homes and killing people, their neighbors.

“They stopped people and checked IDs,” Sheikhly said. “The Sunnis got executed and the Shiites were set free.”

*

The panicked calls started coming in to Youssef, the councilman, after 9 a.m. He tried to call police, even dialing 130, the equivalent of 911, but no one responded, he said. He lamented that he could only tell his constituents: “Be careful and stay in your houses.”

“Where were the Iraqi forces?” Youssef said. “Where was the [U.S. military]? Their helicopters are always flying all over this region.”

U.S. forces say helicopters were dispatched to the scene at 10:50 a.m., with ground forces arriving 20 minutes later. By then, Shammari and other witnesses said bitterly, the worst of the massacres were over.

A U.S. military spokesman defended the American response.

“Right now, coalition forces have about 8,000 troops operating within the entire Baghdad area,” which has a population of 5 million, Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV told reporters a day after the incident. “We are not across the entire Baghdad city. We are at key locations worked out in agreement with the Iraqi security forces. We responded when asked by our counterparts.”

Shammari, a longtime resident considered a paternal figure in the neighborhood, said he called the U.S.-led forces, the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, to no avail.

He also called his contact in the chain of command of the Shiite militia called the Badr Brigade, which is linked to one of the most powerful Shiite political parties in Iraq. The contact told Shammari that he had no influence over the people responsible for what was happening in the neighborhood.

“He said they had no authority over the gunmen that were fighting us and they will not obey our word,” Shammari recalled, his voice brimming with quiet rage.

Panicked residents began calling local television stations, especially the Sunni-run Baghdad TV. They described how gunmen backed by police officials systematically went from house to house. Many alleged that the gunmen were loyalists of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose Al Mahdi militia has been accused of attacking Sunnis. Shiite militiamen have also been accused of infiltrating the security forces, using police vehicles and weaponry to carry out sectarian vendettas.

In a live interview broadcast on Al Arabiya TV, Harith Dhari, the head of the Muslim Scholars Assn., a Sunni group, alleged that police commandos “participated in and supported the attacks of the militia.”

By 3 p.m., police reported that the U.S. Army and Iraqi soldiers and police had entered the area and imposed a curfew.

*

When the uniformed men arrived at Shammari’s house in the early afternoon of July 9, they said they wanted to search for weapons. He showed them his AK-47, allowed under Iraqi law. They then asked to take away his elder son, Mostafa. He resisted, meekly.

“They said they wanted to ask him a few questions and bring him home tomorrow,” Shammari said.

Many fear Mostafa now lies somewhere in a ditch with a bullet hole to his head.

“My son is at the mercy of God,” Shammari said.

That night, gunmen began shooting at his house. He kept the lights off, and family members stayed awake all night praying they would make it until morning. As dawn broke, Shammari put his wife, three daughters and other son into his car and tried to make a break for it. A police officer at a checkpoint, surrounded by young armed men, ordered him to return to his home.

Instead, he left his car with his neighbors and began to look for another escape route. He and his family walked 1 1/2 miles through a back road beyond the neighborhood, meeting neighbors along the way who told them of disasters that had been befallen longtime friends over the past day: kidnappings, killings and house raids.

Finally, the family scurried into a passing taxi. Shammari took his family to relatives, dropping his daughters off at one cousin’s place and his wife at another’s, and taking himself and his 19-year-old son to a third’s.

Four days after the attack, around 4 a.m., Shammari received a panicked call from his neighbor. Shammari’s house was on fire, he was told. He and the neighbor called the fire department, Shammari said, but the police refused to let the firetrucks through.

When he returned to the smoldering remains of his home the next day, he found that his Korans and paintings with religious verses had been carefully placed in plastic bags and laid out on the front yard. The generator gas tank that was normally in the courtyard was in his living room, as if someone had doused the place with gasoline and dumped the container. His old manuscripts, history books, photo albums, hand-woven rugs -- possessions accumulated over 20 years of family life and hard work -- were all burned.

He still hasn’t worked up the strength to tell his wife about the house, he said. But it doesn’t matter: They’re never going back to Jihad.

Times staff writers Zainab Hussein and Shamil Aziz contributed to this report.


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