BAGHDAD — “Allah, please make our army victorious,” rang out the despairing voice of a worshipper making his way through a crowd to reach the ornate enclosure of the Baghdad tomb of a revered Shiite imam. Others in the crystal and marble mosque somberly read from the Quran or tearfully recited supplications.
“We pray for the safety of Iraq and Baghdad,” said Mohammed Hashem al-Maliki, a Shiite, squatting on the marble plaza outside the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kazim in northern Baghdad. “I live close by, and I tell you I have not seen people this sad or worried in a long time,” the 51-year-old said as his 10-year-old daughter, Zeinab, listened somberly.
While the Iraqi capital is not under any immediate threat of falling to the Sunni militants who have captured a wide swath of the country’s north and west, battlefield setbacks and the conflict’s growing sectarian slant is turning this city of 7 million into an anxiety-filled place waiting for disaster to happen.
Traffic is nowhere near its normal congestion. Many stores are shuttered and those that are open are doing little business in a city where streets empty hours before a 10 p.m. curfew kicks in. Arriving international and domestic flights are half empty, while outgoing flights to the relatively safe Kurdish cities of Irbil and Suleimaniya are booked solid through late July as those who can flee.
The number of army and police checkpoints has grown, snarling traffic. Pickup trucks loaded with Shiite militiamen roam the city, including in Sunni and mixed areas, chanting religious slogans. A climate of war reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s days permeates state-run television broadcasts dominated by nationalist songs, video clips of army and police forces in action and reruns of speeches by Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister.
Interviews with Iraqis vowing to fight or declaring their readiness to die for Iraq are daily fare, along with footage showing young volunteers at signup centers or in trucks being ferried to army camps.
The Iraqi capital has seen little respite from violence for more than three decades, from the ruinous 1980-88 war with Iran, the first Gulf War over Kuwait in 1991, to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and subsequent years of turmoil that peaked in 2006 and 2007, with Sunni-Shiite bloodletting that left tens of thousands killed and altered the longstanding sectarian balance, turning Baghdad into a predominantly Shiite city.
Baghdadis, Sunnis and Shiites alike, are renowned for their resilience, but they fear the threat posed by the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, whose interpretation of Islamic Shariah law is similar in its harshness to the Moghul hordes that sacked the city in the 13th century, turning, tradition says, the water of the Tigris red with the blood of its slaughtered residents and black with the ink of the thousands of books they threw into the river.
Shiites fear they will be massacred if the Sunni militants take the city or even parts of it, while Baghdad’s Sunni residents worry the Shiite militiamen, with the full acquiescence of the Shiite-led government, will target them in reprisal attacks if the Islamic State continues its battlefield successes.
“They are coming to destroy life and humanity,” al-Maliki, the worshipper at the Imam al-Kazim shrine, said of the Sunni militants.
A government employee who was injured in a 2004 blast blamed on Sunni militants in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, he was one of several hundred Shiites seeking solace and peace at the shrine one recent evening. Around him in the plaza, families sat in circles as their children energetically ran about as the day’s searing heat finally relented.
But reminders of the dark days that may be ahead were only a stone’s throw away.
Across the plaza, a giant screen displayed the text of June 13 edict by Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, calling on Iraqis to join the security forces to fight the Islamic State fighters, and reminding them that the insurgents have threatened to march on Shiite shrines in Baghdad, Samarra, Najaf and Karbala.
Just outside the mosque gates, Shiite clerics addressed dozens of Shiite militiamen in ski masks and combat fatigues. Though unarmed, their presence near one of Iraq’s most revered Shiite shrines added to the sense of impending war – and was a reminder of the quick erosion of government authority following the security forces’ humiliating defeat in the north, where Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, fell after troops abandoned their positions and weapons.
Since then, tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen of the so-called “Peace Brigades” have staged parades in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite south, displaying a range of heavy weapons, mostly Iranian-made but including some U.S.-made assault rifles, from field artillery and missiles to rocket launchers and heavy machine-guns.
Held in Baghdad’s sprawling Shiite Sadr City district, home to some 2 million Shiites, policemen and army troops stood aside as the parade’s organizers searched cars and kept the crowds at bay. Some of the cranes used for cameras recording the event belonged to the Shiite-controlled city council, along with some of the pickup trucks hauling missiles on their back beds.
Underlining the sectarian slant of the conflict, the parading men included clerics dressed in military fatigues and carrying assault rifles. At the reviewing stand, senior clerics with silver beards and flowing robes stood at attention, giving military salutes.
The Peace Brigades is the latest name for the Mahdi Army, a brutal militia loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which took the lead in targeting Sunnis during the sectarian bloodletting nearly a decade ago.
That blood-stained history was not far from the mind of one militia commander who spoke on the parade’s sidelines.
“We can take Baghdad in one hour if we decide to do it,” he said boastfully. “This parade has one aim: To terrorize Sunnis,” added the commander, who agreed to be named only by his alias, Abu Zeinab.
The parades were the latest evidence that the Sunni-Shiite conflict carries the potential for a civil war that could herald the division of Iraq. It is a scenario that spells the most trouble for Baghdad.
Baghdad’s Sunnis already are terrified.
Sunnis report the appearance over the past week in some of their neighborhoods of plainclothes security agents with firearms bulging from under their shirts. In scenes harkening back to Saddam’s police state, the agents loiter in cafes and restaurants and outside Sunni mosques, according to the residents who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.
“Our politicians have so far succeeded in one thing: They have created an atmosphere of distrust between the city’s Shiites and Sunnis,” said Yasser Farouq, a 45-year-old retail businessman from Baghdad’s Sunni district of Azamiyah. Farouq said he already has a plan to flee the city with his family if the Islamic State fighters take it or if the Shiite militiamen turn against the city’s Sunni residents.
“Weapons are everywhere in the city. That tells me that instability is here and disaster is on the way,” he said.