A few months ago Saab al Bour was a showpiece town where Americans were building schools and fixing the water and electricity supplies. Even the Shi’ites and Sunnis rubbed along.
The dusty settlement of sand-coloured brick buildings six miles northwest of Baghdad is now a ghost town, shorn of its residents by Iraq’s relentless sectarian wars. They took to the road when mortars, 15-20 a day, started crashing into the town, fired by Sunni extremists targeting the Shi’ites.
Sunni neighbour turned on Shi’ite neighbour in a struggle that eventually drove out 90% of the original population of 30,000.
Before I set out for Saab al Bour yesterday, I had been assured that it had been “pacified”. Our two UH-60 helicopters flew low out of Baghdad’s fortified green zone, swooping over the capital, its once-crowded arteries devoid of traffic.
We banked over flat stretches of baked earth and a few patches of green and came in low to a wasteland in the middle of the town, guided by grey smoke rising from two armoured cars that had been sent ahead to secure the landing. This did not look like a pacified town.
American soldiers in desert camouflage uniforms leapt out of the helicopters to set up a perimeter, 6ft apart, around us. Crouching, M16s perched on their shoulders pointing out in a circle, they eyed the mud and sand brick houses suspiciously. Only a mangy yellow dog moved.
Within half an hour of my arrival Apache helicopter gunships filled the sky, firing on insurgents just the other side of a canal with loud blasts of their cannons.
In the town’s police station, sandbagged and covered with camouflage netting, Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Thompson sat with two members of the local council. The police were supposed to be there to brief us, but they had been called to an “incident”. Later one policeman told me the incident was an attack on their commander’s home and they had rushed to help.
This is just a microcosm of the problems besetting Iraq. The town of Saab al Bour had been quiet when the American army, backed up by Iraqi soldiers, was based there. It sits on the edge of Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold. Shortly after the soldiers handed over to the Iraqi police at the end of last month, the fighting began.
Khaled Lateef, a councillor who stayed throughout, said the mortars were fired by Sunni extremists from across the canal, aimed mostly at the Shi’ite areas.
The police were outgunned by the insurgents. The Iraqi and American armies had to move back to pick up where they had left off. Thompson tried to be up-beat: “We’re down to one mortar a day,” he said. “We’re back to rebuilding.”
Every time one tiny corner of Iraq is fixed, another chunk falls apart. Take Yarmouk, a wealthy Baghdad neighbourhood famed for its manicured gardens, fashionable boutiques and spacious villas. Living just a mile from the American troops in the green zone, residents have until recently felt far removed from Iraq’s sectarian violence.
They were wrong. A district that for decades was 70% Sunni and 30% Shi’ite, where members of the two different strands of Islam lived side by side, mingled and even married, has been “cleansed” of 90% of its Shi’ite residents. Their choice was to leave or die.
A doctor forced out of Yarmouk by Sunnis described the thugs’ methods. “They kidnapped my son,” he said. “They broke his nose, then they raised a pick-up truck on a jack, turned the truck on and put his legs under the spinning tyres. All the skin was torn off.” After payment of £10,500, he got his son back. The 20-year-old university student wore shoes last week for the first time in months.
“I hired security guards but they fired an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) at my house. I couldn’t stand it any more. We left Yarmouk.”
Yarmouk is a shocking example of Iraq’s sectarian strife because the Sunni-Shi’ite violence is usually portrayed as a cancer confined to slums run by radical militias. But this area was home to an educated elite who played tennis at the club and went abroad for the summer.
The slaughter consuming Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in roughly equal measure may appear like anarchy from afar, but a closer look reveals a sinister plot. Starting in the west of the city, Sunni militants have seized district after district, creating their own zone that extends into the heart of Baghdad.
The Shi’ites are not innocent. Since the explosion at a Shi’ite mosque in Samarra in February, their militias have exacted vicious revenge. The morgue classifies victims according to their injuries; if a victim has been beheaded, he is a Shi’ite killed by Sunnis. If he has been killed by a power drill to the head, he is a Sunni murdered by Shi’ites. Most victims have been tortured. Bodies are dumped by the roadside and lie there for hours.
Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, vowed last week — not for the first time — to clamp down on the militias. He has made scant progress, partly because he depends on a political party allied to a Shi’ite militia. The US Operation Together Forward launched in August to pacify Baghdad has failed dismally.
While the Shi’ites are fired by blind vengeance, the Sunnis appear to have a plan. They are trying to split Baghdad in half in advance of a proposal to carve Iraq into three federal regions.
Most of the country divides easily. The north is mainly Kurdish, the south Shi’ite, and the central desert region Sunni. Baghdad, too mixed to divide without a massive population transfer, is the sticking point in this plan.
But look at the changing map of Baghdad today. From the western suburb of Abu Ghraib, neighbourhoods have fallen under the control of Sunni radicals, their Shi’ite residents sent fleeing, their homes abandoned or taken by Sunni families, their businesses bombed, shuttered or reopened under Sunni ownership. Baghdad is on its way to becoming two cities, the west Sunni, the east and north Shi’ite.
The militias conducting this ethnic cleansing have a deadly system, described by an Iraqi intelligence officer and former residents of Yarmouk. First they terrorise the area, shooting children selling ice or black-market petrol on the street. Then they go for the shops and businesses.
It worked in Yarmouk. The Amari bakery was run by three brothers; two were killed and one injured. He fled. The bakery is now the Ahmed bakery, run by a Sunni. Abu Allah, also a Shi’ite, ran the grocery. He was shot and survived, but fled Yarmouk.
In the third stage, the Sunni militants go after the police, attacking checkpoints until they pull out. Then they target Shi’ite residents. “You wake up to a bullet in your garden. Or a note saying leave this area in 36 hours. After all the killings, you pack up and go,” said another former resident, who knew of eight people killed near his home.
The Shi’ite houses and shops are considered “ramim”, Arabic for spoils of war, and handed to Sunni families.
There is a police station in Yarmouk but the police are holed up inside, powerless to intervene, because the insurgents are better armed. The best way to bribe a policeman these days is with bullets; they stop expensive cars and where once they demanded money, they now want ammunition. Last week 18 policemen were killed in a Sunni ambush in Khan Bani Sa’ad, 20 miles north of Baghdad, because they had run out of bullets.
Two police officers from the Yarmouk precinct described their predicament. One was a Shi’ite married to a Sunni, the other a Sunni married to a Shi’ite. One had been shot seven times on his doorstep; the other had his car blown up.
When the Sunni officer’s in-laws came to stay, he woke to find a note wrapped around a bullet. It read: “There are Shi’ite in your house. Your future is this bullet if they do not leave.” They left.
There are some signs of social resistance. On Thursday in Mansour, which borders Yarmouk, 3,000 people, mostly families, gathered at the Hunting Club to celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan. The skirts were low on the girls’ hips, there was barely a hijab in sight, and Abir the DJ spun western and Arabic discs.
“This is our way of fighting the terrorists who are trying to destroy life in Iraq,” said Hasanain Mualla, the manager.
And then there is the bravest ice cream seller in Baghdad, a Sunni. When Sunni militants demanded he close because there had been no ice cream in the time of the prophet Muhammad, he told them: “I’ll stop selling ice cream when you ride up on camels to threaten me. There were no BMWs in the time of prophet Muhammad either.”