Baghdad Bulletin: Balad Goes Bad

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When you've been in Iraq as long as I have — over three and a half years — the tragedies that beset this country can either become mere statistics, or they can become personal. I've only been back in Baghdad six hours, and already the week's most horrific story — the sectarian carnage that has killed nearly 100 people in the town of Balad — has taken on a personal dimension.

One of my Iraqi colleagues moved his family to Balad barely a week ago, because that town — an hour's drive north of here — had seemed a safe haven compared to their neighborhood in Baghdad. He figured that in Balad, his kids would be able to go to school without fear of bombs going off in the street, or kidnapping gangs lurking at every corner. They are a Shi'ite family, and would be among the majority in Balad. It didn't seem to matter that the town is ringed by Sunni districts. Just seven days ago, Balad had seemed so much safer than Baghdad.

Then the killings began. A couple of Sunnis were killed in a neighboring town. In retaliation, Sunnis killed about a dozen Shi'ite laborers. The Shi'ites then called in their militias from Baghdad, and set off an orgy of violence. At least 100 have been killed, and you can be sure there will be more attacks and counterattacks in the days and weeks ahead. The peace of Balad has forever been shattered.

My colleague has not heard from his family for several days. He cannot go to Balad because the route has been cut off by the violence. The phone lines there seem not to be working. My colleague, as you can imagine, is beside himself with anxiety — anxiety and guilt. If anything happens to them, he will never forgive himself for sending them into harm's way.

That's life in today's Iraq, where even decisions you make to safeguard your family can put their lives in mortal danger.