Middle East

Iraq's uncertain future amid wave of violence

Children at the scene of a car bomb in Baghdad (Feb 2013)
Image caption More than 4,000 Iraqis have been killed so far this year

The passenger who sat next to me on the flight to Baghdad was an Iraqi Shia in his late 40s.

We had a few conversations during the flight. Hayder, who had been living in the UK for years, was going to see his family back in Iraq.

We went through immigration and reached the arrivals hall, where his brother was waiting for him. "Where is Ali?" Hayder asked about his younger brother, and the other man burst into tears.

"He was killed in a car bomb last week and we didn't want to tell you until you got here."

I left the two men hugging each other in their grief.

Iraq seems to be heading towards civil war once more. Ali was one of the 1,000 Iraqis killed in the month of July, making it one of the worst months in years. More than 4,000 Iraqis have lost their lives this year in acts of violence.

Al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni extremist organization, is responsible for most of the bombings. Their targets are mainly Shia neighbourhoods across Iraq.

I went to some of those areas to talk to the people.

'Region is boiling'

Shias do not blame the whole Sunni community for what is happening.

Om Zeinab, a head teacher, said that Iraqis should not react in a way that serves al-Qaeda's goal of inciting another wave of sectarian killing of the scale the country experienced in 2006 and 2007.

Image caption A one-million-strong security force has failed to protect civilians

I had to go through many security checkpoints to reach central Baghdad. Soldiers and policemen are everywhere. Iraq has about one million security personnel, but they are still unable to control the security situation.

The Shias, for so long oppressed by Saddam Hussein's secular but Sunni-dominated regime, are in charge now. They control the security forces and the army.

I asked interior ministry spokesman Brig-Gen Saad Maan why the government was failing to providing security, given all its resources.

"I do not agree with you in calling it failure," he said.

"You have to consider the scale of the security challenge that we are facing. Not only Iraq, the whole Middle East region is boiling.

"We might be high in numbers but Iraq is a big country. We are doing our jobs, chasing terrorists and bringing them to justice."

But government security efforts were hit with a major blow last month when militants raided the biggest prison in the country, Abu Ghraib. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack.

Dozens of fighters stormed the highly fortified facility and freed 500 inmates, including many senior al-Qaeda members.

Exploiting grievances

There have been bombings in Sunni areas as well recently. No-one is claiming responsibility for such attacks.

Image caption Iraq's Sunnis say the Shia-led government is ignoring attacks against them

But Sunnis accuse the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, of turning a blind eye, if not supporting, the activities of Shia militias.

For months, members of the Sunni minority have been protesting against Mr Maliki, accusing him of discrimination against them.

I could not go to the Sunni heartland in western Iraq - the government is blocking access to journalists, especially those who are from the international media.

I went instead to Adhamiaya, a Sunni neighbourhood in Baghdad.

Sheikh Mustafa al-Bayati, a Sunni cleric and protest leader told me that the demonstrations were not motivated by sectarianism.

"We did not rise against the Shia. We have lived with them for centuries. We rose against the government which puts our men in prison unfairly and abuses our human rights. That should stop.

"We will either live in dignity or die in dignity," he said.

Not so long ago the Sunni community turned against al-Qaeda. Today the extremist group is trying to exploit current grievances.

During the height of the sectarian violence many Sunni areas became no-go zones for Shias and vice-versa.

The situation subsequently improved and plenty of neighbourhoods are mixed again. But people are worried about what the future holds for their country, which has lacked stability for so long.

When you talk to people, you have a sense that they want to live together. They still believe that the Iraqi identity should supersede the sectarian.

On my way back to the airport my taxi driver was a 30-year-old Sunni man. He told me about his dream of leaving Iraq.

"Iraq is a rich country but we do not see that. I want to go to live in a better place - Europe or America or anywhere."

He then put a CD in the car stereo and started listening. All the songs were sad. As we approached the airport, he gazed longingly at a plane taking off.

"There is no happiness in Iraq. I never felt it."