In Baghdad, a Last Stand Against Ethnic Cleansing

  • Share
  • Read Later
Lt. Sam Cartee doubts the Sunni families barricading themselves in his sector can hold out much longer. Shi'ite militants thought to be from the Mahdi Army have mounted an aggressive campaign since this summer to clear Sunnis from the northern end of Ghazaliya, a formerly posh neighborhood in western Baghdad. The cleansing push has moved steadily southward, gaining ground house by house, day by day. Cartee says Mahdi Army fighters typically give Sunni families they threaten in Ghazaliya just 24 hours to leave their homes, which are then handed to Shi'ite families. Anyone who defies the deadline risks death. Few do, allowing the Mahdi Army to flip up to five houses a day. Many of the Sunni families forced from their homes have now gathered in an enclave in central Ghazaliya under the protection of a local sheik named Hamed Ne'ma Taher al-Obaydy, who has turned his block into an Alamo of sorts. Cartee's unit hopes to stop the onslaught before Hamed's holdout of about 1,200 people falls, but lately hopes on both sides have dimmed. "They're not surrounded yet, but they will be soon," says Cartee, a reedy young officer from West Virginia who speaks with a slight southern accent. Cartee thinks Hamed's flock can last perhaps weeks, not months, before the Mahdi Army overruns them. "They don't have long."

The pace of events in Ghazaliya and other violent neighborhoods in Baghdad these days makes the policy debate on Iraq in Washington seem like a glacial process doomed to produce a strategy immediately rendered outdated. Even now, much of Washington appears to be clinging to the belief that the killing across Iraq is not a civil war, since the violence has unfolded in fluid patterns defying conventional notions of a battlefield divided by opposing forces. But that now is changing. The war is down to territorial street fights in places like Ghazaliya, where Cartee and the men in his platoon see the front lines taking shape.

The fortifications marking battle lines around Hamed's neighborhood are crude. Chunks of chopped-up palm trees rest next to rusting refrigerators, junked generators and bags of rocks. In another life not too long ago, Hamed was a businessman who spent days tending to his various shops. Now Hamed's afternoons go to checking on the Sunni families crowded into the houses around his. Often at night he joins the neighborhood lookouts keeping watch on rooftops, eyeing the newly claimed Mahdi Army territory that sits literally across the street. "The situation is too much to bear," says Hamed, who wraps himself in a long brown robe lined with faux fur as he walks the neighborhood compound. "If the Americans cannot do something to help us, we're going to make our own army."

Cartee and other U.S. officers don't blame Hamed for thinking of forming a militia, even though the prospect presents huge problems for them. Any fighters who come to Hamed's aid are likely to include Sunni militants with some degree of affinity for al-Qaeda in Iraq or the insurgency. Hamed acknowledges as much, and he tells Cartee again and again that he'd hate to end up on the wrong side of the Americans. But time is running out, and few other options remain as long as U.S. forces are unable to quell the sectarian violence overwhelming the streets here.

By the sound of things during the day, the battle for Hamed's neighborhood has already begun. Three mortars fell on the streets around Hamed's house in the hour I spent with him, and he says bullets fly into the neighborhood almost daily. Cartee visits Hamed frequently, always urging him not to take matters into his own hands. U.S. troops try to help Hamed by keeping up patrols in the area and raiding safe houses of the Mahdi Army — which denies any operations in Ghazaliya. But the U.S. raids often come to nothing. Shi'ite militants have a knack for disappearing before U.S. forces can nab them. And the U.S. patrols aren't omnipresent. Much of the time the sheik is on his own.

"We can keep defending ourselves for two or three months like this," says Hamed, who plans to begin forming a militia in mid-January unless the picture changes. "But we've already decided to attack them if they keep attacking us."