Monday, March 26, 2007

Baghdad's Sunnis live in a land of silent ruin

Baghdad's Sunnis live in a land of silent ruin (Thanks Molly)

BAGHDAD: The cityscape of this capital tells a stark story of the toll the past four years have taken on Iraq's once powerful Sunni Arabs.

Theirs is a world of ruined buildings, damaged mosques, streets pitted by mortar shells, uncollected trash and so little electricity that many people have abandoned using refrigerators altogether.

The contrast with Shiite neighborhoods is sharp. Markets there are in full swing, community projects are under way and, while electricity is scarce throughout the city, there is less trouble finding fuel for generators in those areas.

When the government cannot provide services, civilian arms of the Shiite militias step in to try to fill the gap.

But in Adhamiya, a community with a Sunni majority, any semblance of normal life vanished more than a year ago. Its only hospital, Al Numan, is so short of basic items like gauze and cotton pads that when mortar attacks hit the community last autumn, the doctors broadcast appeals for supplies over local mosque loudspeakers.

Here, as in so much of Baghdad, the sectarian divide makes itself felt in its own deadly and destructive ways. Far more than in Shiite areas, sectarian hatred has shredded whatever remained of community life and created a cycle of violence that pits Sunni against Sunni as well as Sunni against Shiite.

Anyone who works with the government, whether Shiite or Sunni, is an enemy in the eyes of the Sunni insurgents, who carry out attack after attack against people they view as collaborators. While that chiefly makes targets of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army and the police, the militants also kill fellow Sunnis from government ministries who come to repair water and electrical lines in Sunni neighborhoods.

The result of such attacks is that government workers of either sect refuse to deliver services to most Sunni areas. For ordinary Sunnis, all this deepens the sense of political impotence and estrangement. U.S. military leaders and Western diplomats are unsure the cycle can be stopped.

"The Sunnis outside the political process say, 'What's the point of coming in when those involved in the government can do nothing for their own community?' " said a Western diplomat who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Militant religious groups, known as takfiris, "have taken these Sunni neighborhoods as bases, which made these areas of military operation," which stopped the delivery of services, said Nasir al-Ani, a Sunni member of Parliament who works on a committee that is hoping to win popular acceptance of the Baghdad security plan.

"Now the ministries are trying to make services available," Ani said, "but the security situation prevents it. Part of the aim of the takfiris is to keep people disliking the government."

It adds up to a bleak prognosis for Sunnis. Until the violence is under control, there is unlikely to be any progress. But it is hard to persuade Sunnis to take a stand against the violence when they receive so little in return.

"We want to highlight that when the government is denying services to Sunnis, they are pushing them toward the Sunni extremists who attack the Shiite-dominated security forces," said Major Guy Parmeter, an operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, of the U.S. military, which operates in the Sunni areas on the west side of Baghdad. "And when that happens, it makes it harder to deliver services to those areas."

Government leaders admit that there has been outright obstruction on the part of some Shiite ministries. The Health Ministry, dominated by Shiites loyal to the militant cleric Moktada al-Sadr, has failed to deliver needed services to Sunni areas, said Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman.

"This is part of the lack of efficiency in the ministry, which didn't improve this year," Dabbagh said. He added, however, that he did not see any remedy in the near term.

But government officials also emphasized that many of the skilled Sunnis who used to keep the ministries going have fled, so the ministries are not delivering services to anyone. Again, security has to come first, they said.

Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite whose most recent role is to lead the committee working to win popular acceptance of the security plan, said he saw four problems particularly plaguing Sunni areas: food distribution, electricity, fuel and health services.

Chalabi said he might have found a solution for the first by ensuring that food agents have members of the Iraqi Army escort them to warehouses.

The other problems are deeper and the solutions will take far longer to find, he said.

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