Revisiting Baghdad: How bad are the sectarian tensions?

Dora is famous for its sprawling markets

Conventional wisdom holds that the sectarian currents sweeping through the Middle East are turning Iraq once more into a battleground, and gains made by the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki are at risk as the grim ticker of violent death chatters once more into life.

Sunni extremists, from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), have staged risings in those notorious trouble-spots of the anti-American insurgency of several years ago, Ramadi and Fallujah.

The number of fatalities is rising to levels not seen for five years. More than 700 died last month.

The view of a worsening state of Sunni-Shia strife is not wrong, well, not as a broad brush generalisation anyway.

But, as so often in this part of the world, it has to be qualified by various niggling realities that do not fit the generalisation.

In order to gauge the state of the new Sunni revolt, we filmed last month in Dora, a suburb of southern Baghdad that was the scene of Newsnight reports in 2007 and 2008.

During our first visit things were desperately bad in Dora, an area of sprawling markets populated largely by Sunnis but with a significant Christian minority.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq had declared it a liberated zone and was busy perpetrating all manner of outrages, from driving a suicide bomb into a church, assassinating leading members of the nationalist Sunni opposition, and frequently attacking the US soldiers with whom we were embedded.

'Gangs of troublemakers'

By the time of our last visit, the neighbourhood had been turned around. American soldiers, bizarrely, were playing pool with locals of an evening, and violence had dropped almost to nothing.

Central to the change were the "surge" of coalition forces and Sahwa, or Awakening Councils, a Sunni militia formed with backing from tribal chiefs and paid by the Americans.

Mark Urban revisits Dora to see how life has changed since his last visit

When US troops left, the Sahwa commanders predicted Mr Maliki's government, fearing the existence of a large, armed Sunni militia of this kind, would throttle them.

In Dora today there are a few dozen Sahwa members left out of a force that once numbered several hundred in the neighbourhood and more than 70,000 across Iraq.

Their commander, Mudafar Taher Mehdi al-Azawi, a former brigadier in Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, told us the area was now stable, but "there are gangs of troublemakers again".

Since the Americans in 2007-2008 were quite open about the fact the Awakening movement had allowed them to "hire the insurgency" - including many people they had previously arrested - this seems unwise to say the least.

What had become of the other members of his force?

Oppression

According to the brigadier and others we spoke to, something like 70% of the former members of this local defence force had been given government jobs as civil servants, teachers and the like. Almost none had been taken into the police.

A member of the local Sahwa militia The Sahwa has been frequently targeted by Sunni insurgents

The Maliki government, to be fair, wanted militias demobilised as the security situation improved further during 2010 to 2012, and it was clever enough to give the former Sahwa men paid government employment rather than cutting them loose altogether.

Those who remained committed to it had become hate figures for more extreme members of their own community who remained within the jihadi camp.

In 2008, when we met Sheikh Ali, a local imam and key figure in the founding of the Dora Awakening forces, he had told us al-Qaeda was not 100% finished in Dora, "maybe 90%".

Well, that rump of diehards had not forgiven him and the other Sahwa men, for in 2011 as he left prayers at his mosque, Sheikh Ali was murdered.

Siding with the US military, and the Maliki government it left behind, was extremely unpopular.

Watch Mark Urban's 2008 Newsnight film from Dora

So today with the old Awakening militia all but vanished, the Federal Police - a Shia-dominated force - secures Dora.

It rings the neighbourhood with checkpoints and many regard them as a form of oppression.

As fighting between ISIS and Iraqi security forces rages to the west, tribal connections between people in Dora and the area in revolt remain very important - there is a constant movement to and from Anbar Province.

With the connection broken between the state and local security by the withering of the Sahwa force, the presence of large numbers of Federal Police, and a stream of bad news coming from places to the west, Dora is now becoming more tense.

Iraqi elections

Things took a big turn for the worse when a series of bombs in the market on Christmas Day killed 26 people.

Even so, people seem to differentiate between the sectarian tension and the bombing, which Tarik al-Khazraji, an architect who we have met on all of our trips to Dora, describes as, "almost random".

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For the time being violent extremism remains underground in Dora, showing itself occasionally with bombings and assassinations”

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While Tarik is pessimistic about the functioning of Iraq's political system and believes a new generation of leadership is needed, he holds back from directly accusing Mr Maliki of sectarian behaviour.

There are Sunnis who are more forthright, believing their prime minister governs in the interest of his sect and of Iran, where he spent many years as a political exile during Saddam's time. But plenty, like Tarik, remember more unified times and do not want to sully themselves with a sectarian critique.

While I was in Baghdad I spoke to Major General Abdul-Karim Abbud Kathom, a serving senior Federal Police officer who commanded the brigade in Dora when the insurgency was smothered between 2006 and 2009.

His view was that the Syrian conflict had played a role in exacerbating recent tensions, but the prospect of Iraqi elections in April was having a worse effect in this regard.

This seemed to be a point of consensus among almost everyone I spoke to in Dora.

Extremism underground

Once polls are in prospect, the extremist groups set about their habitual game of trying to demonstrate Mr Maliki cannot sell himself to the electorate as "Mr Security" and militias, on both sides of the sectarian divide, will have to be reckoned with in forming a new governing coalition.

Dora is famous for its sprawling markets Most people continue to go about their daily lives in Dora

This, most people feel, is what causes the increase in car bombs.

It is a reality they have learned to live with, however gruesome the human cost, but this election time things are different. With big Sunni areas now outside government control, the ability to stage a meaningful national election is open to question.

For the time being violent extremism remains underground in Dora, showing itself occasionally with bombings and assassinations. While there have been some demonstrations after Friday prayers, Dora is not in open revolt like Fallujah. Most people continue to go about their daily lives.

However much the inhabitants, particularly of an older generation, might prefer to shun the sectarian view of this worsening violence, events are exacerbating such tensions.

And with the neutering of the old Awakening militia - itself regarded by many Sunnis as a sectarian act - the part of this community that is prepared to stand beside the government has been largely disarmed. It cannot bode well for the future.

You can watch Mark Urban's latest Newsnight film from Dora on the Newsnight website or via the BBC iPlayer.

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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