Middle East

Iraq's reminder of the worst of times

A man weeps over his daughter's coffin in the city of Najaf , 20 May
Image caption A man weeps over his daughter's coffin in the city of Najaf, after a wave of bombings swept the country

On two separate mornings, bombs went off almost simultaneously in many different public places around Baghdad.

In the chaos, we visited Meshtal, a predominantly Shia area, like most of those in the city that have been targeted.

"My friend Karim just walked over there to buy a cup of tea," says a distraught man, Khalifa, pointing to a spot just in front of a restaurant. "Out of nowhere, a car parked close by exploded."

Khalifa recounted how, once he had managed to gather himself, he ran over to Karim, only to find him dead.

"He was my good, good friend. He had seven daughters. What will they do? He was loved by so many."

After more bombs went off, we visited the hospital in another Shia neighbourhood, Sadr City.

"My son Hassan was having his car fixed at the garage in Kamalia," says Mtshar.

He again describes a massive explosion and the terrifying scenes that followed.

"I felt I died until I saw my son," says Mtshar. "I saw people's limbs and bodies. I didn't expect to find Hassan alive."

With tears in his eyes, Mtshar looks over at his son in the bed beside us. Hassan is in shock and has numerous shrapnel wounds, but knows he is lucky to have survived.

Two beds away is Saeed.

"I was in my shop in Jisr Dialah when the bomb exploded," he tells us.

He says the target may have been Shia Muslims like him, but that others were affected too.

"They were all innocent people," says Saeed. "My leg was injured, but what really gave me pain was seeing Sunni friends dead on the ground."

Syrian conflict

This is the worst period of violence in Iraq for nearly five years, but why is it happening now?

The Iraqi government says the main factors are external.

"Of course what is going on in Syria has an impact in Iraq," says Sami al-Askari, MP and close aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Image caption Sami al-Askari MP says the Syrian conflict is having an impact in Iraq

"Especially as the problem in Syria is taking the shape of a sectarian civil war between an Alawite and Shia regime against the majority Sunni."

Mr Askari, a Shia, also talks of the presence of al-Qaeda-linked Sunni militant groups in Syria and their movement into and out of Iraq.

"The provinces in the west of Iraq, the majority of their population is Sunni, so these areas could become safe havens for these groups."

What Mr Askari does not say, is that Shia fighters are also crossing into Syria from Iraq to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Around Shia areas of Baghdad, we saw banners commemorating the Shia fighters who had met their deaths in Syria.

"A 'civil war' is one sect against another, but this is more than that," says a man who wants his identity to be kept secret, but who recruits and prepares Shia fighters in Iraq before they are dispatched to Syria.

"When somebody attacks your beliefs, you must defend them," he says.

There is no way of verifying the numbers he gave us, but he suggests 6,000 to 7,000 Shia fighters had gone to fight with President Assad's forces.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionIraqi FM: "Iraq is affected by the ongoing crisis in Syria"

However, Syria is not the only reason Iraqis are again talking of the possibility of civil war and even the break up of their country.

"The main problems are inside Iraq, the Iraqis themselves, the leaders," says Hana Edward, an Iraqi activist who campaigned against human rights abuses during the time of Saddam Hussein, but who says her work has had to continue.

"After Saddam went, we were thrilled about freedom and were looking forward to enjoying our human rights, but unfortunately it is not like that and there are gross violations," Ms Edward says.

"Our leaders have a mentality of exclusion and totalitarianism. The Iraqi regime is becoming a new dictatorship."

And many Sunnis feel they are being persecuted by Iraq's Shia-led government, in a reversal of what happened in the time of Saddam Hussein.

Ms Edward has been one of those taking part in demonstrations against government forces detaining large numbers of Sunni Iraqis without ever putting them on trial.

'Made by politicians'

"It was 01:30 when they came for him," says Najam Aboud, from a Sunni area in the north of Baghdad. His son, Omar was picked up two years ago.

"For 13 days they tortured Omar by giving him electric shocks and hanging him by his wrists."

Image caption Sunni-Shia tensions are at their highest since US troops pulled out in December 2011

He says they tied his son naked outside in cold weather and threw water over him, until he confessed to planning attacks against Shias.

"They laughed and told him, your name is Omar, a Sunni name, that is one of your crimes."

Mr Aboud's two Sunni daughters are both married to Shia men, but he says that even after Omar's arrest and continued detention, there has been no sectarian tension within the family.

"The problems between Shia and Sunni are made by politicians, not by the people," he says.

It is a viewpoint we heard expressed time and again, even after the bloodiest of bomb attacks.

Humanitarian organisations like Human Rights Watch told us cases like Omar's, in which Sunnis have been detained without trial, are extremely common.

But while he admitted there were some problems, Mr Askari says the issues for minority Sunnis are mainly in the mind.

"Psychologically, it is very hard for many Sunnis to accept the new realities. Sunnis used to be the leaders and the Shia and the Kurds were the followers. But it can't be that way anymore," he says.

Image caption Opposition MP Nada Jabouri says Sunni grievances on rights abuses and detentions are real

"Some Sunnis will not feel happy whatever they get because now they are sharing power. Perhaps this generation cannot be cured but we hope that the next generation of Sunnis feel they are Iraqi and don't feel they are different."

It is a statement that will infuriate many Iraqi Sunnis, including Nada Jabouri, an opposition MP.

"I feel sorry to hear that from any official in my country because after all we are already all Iraqis - all of us are Sunni, all of us are Shia."

Ms Jabouri says Sunni grievances are real, and points not only to the detentions, but the recent killings by government forces of Sunnis protesting against human rights abuses.

"No government has the right to use force against those demonstrators who are peaceful," she says.

Ms Jabouri acknowledged the many attacks were carried out by Sunni militant groups like al-Qaeda against Shia civilians, but said the government responses were only creating more tensions.

"We should not make civilian people pay the price for terrorist groups and what they do, but that is what is happening in Iraq now," she says.

Given the sectarian rifts across the region, Iraq is looking as vulnerable as ever to a breakdown in society of disastrous proportions.

What Iraqis are asking is why there is not the urgency - here and abroad - to stop a further decline in conditions, when already so many are dying. The last week in Iraq has been a horrific reminder of the worst of times here.