Is it civil war in Iraq or is it not? And if it is, is there a way to stop it and if it's not, is there a way to avert it?
Who's to blame for the sectarian violence and who's escalating it? And what role foreign terror groups like al-Qaeda is playing in this regard? Is it possible that foreign terrorists, with their numbers estimated to be between several hundreds to a few thousands, were/are capable of inflicting so much damage and taking the lead in provoking sectarian strife in a country of 28 millions?
These are some of the questions I hear and read very often these days. It's not easy to find the right answers without taking a much closer look at what's happening on the ground preferably by following the sequence of events in a limited area(s) to get a better understanding of the reality of the situation.
Today I have a true story for you about the sectarian tension in one area of Iraq, although it's only one area but it has a lot in common with other areas and I believe similar stories are taking place in other areas.
The story is taking place in a suburb of Baghdad with mixed tribal and sectarian composition and it's a suburb where we happen to have relatives living over there.
Last week my father and I went there to attend the funeral of an extended family member; everything went almost normal until we wanted to go home. Here's part of the conversation that went between us and one of our hosts:
(O=Omar, F=my father and R=relative)
R: Er, I don't know how to put this, but coming here was a mistake in the first place, I'm glad you made it safe but if you leave now I will be concerned about your safety.
F: Why? What's going on that I'm not aware of?
R: There's been a lot of trouble here recently and traveling at this time of the day can be so dangerous.
F: Ok, I'm listening…
R: It all started several months ago when a bunch of young men from the local tribes began showing strange extreme religious behavior we're not familiar with in this area.
They did not have influence here in the beginning and their apparent action was limited to hate talk against Shia who they refer to as the "enemies" while we coexisted here and lived peacefully with Shia tribes for centuries.
It didn't take long before they translated their rhetoric into violent action, they started to carry out ocassional kidnapping and assassinations against Shia men from neighboring tribes and even attacked Shia neighborhoods deep inside Baghdad after they acquired heavy mortars and katyusha rockets.
At this point we began to realize the true identity of those young men and we began to believe that they became part of al-Qaeda…
The Shia community showed restraint for a while but then their patience ended and the militias started to fire back…at us unfortunately.
The worst escalation happened last week when al-Qaeda snatched a relative of a senior Shia party official near his home, the militia of that party retaliated by kidnapping ten men of a Sunni tribe and there were also incidents of forced displacement on both sides…we don't know if a peaceful settlement can be ever reached.
O: Many other districts suffer from the similar tensions yet people still move around even at some risk, so why can't we go? Or is it that bad?
R: Beginning every afternoon several roadblocks are set on the one street leading to Baghdad and every couple kilometers you'll face a roadblock and gunmen of this or that tribe or sect. They do this to protect their communities and outsiders will be at great risk of being abducted or shot at.
F: Ok, I see that now but who are those troublemakers in the first place and how many are they that you can't stop them from getting you into trouble?
R: About a dozen…they belong to a few of the Sunni tribes and their chief is the son of former big head in Saddam's government.
O: Did you try to talk to them, intimidate them or do anything to dissuade them from keeping up their dangerous game?
R: We tried, first they told us they were protecting us from Shia death squads and they fooled many of people here with that claim but that's bull shit because now they are the reason death squads are after us.
F: That doesn't make any sense! You mean the entire tribe and neighboring ones can't control a dozen of militants?
R: The problem is that these people behead victims and mutilate bodies, they plant bombs and use dirty tricks…the tribe's men are not adapted to dealing with this kind of horrors.
When sheikhs met to arrange for reconciliation the terrorists sent messages telling the sheikhs they were "no longer wanted" and that they were "ripe" for beheading.
By the way this was the 2nd meeting between Sunni and Shia sheikhs, the first one was held immediately after the Samarra bombing, it was a purely local initiative without mediation from the government or clerics…we had been good neighbors for ages! The sheikhs signed a pact of honor that forbid bloodshed and displacement and that what kept sectarian violence away from the area…until those bastards came in.
F: But still, you know who they are and you can ambush them and get rid of them once and for all.
O, interrupting: Have you tried reporting them to the Army or whatever security force working here?
R: Some elders are considering such plans but many people are afraid of reprisal from other al-Qaeda cells in the region to which those guys might be connected. We are farmers and we have families to worry over. And No Omar, we didn't do that and even if we did we don't expect the authorities to respond to report about a cell of 10 militants in a dangerous orchard area when they're busy fighting thousands of them inside Baghdad.
Plus, any military operation here will certainly bring a lot of collateral damage to our homes and farms. Those bad guys have no respect for our lives and would do anything to remain at large.
(I learned later that day that one of the locals had more guts and confidence in the authorities than the rest and did contact the security forces but the man admitted to me that the operator who received his call kind of "terrified" him by the way he spoke and by his irrelevant uncomfortable questions about the identity of the caller while callers have the right to remain anonymous. Anyway, so far no measures have been taken in response to that tip).
Actually the conversation went much longer than this as we realized we had to spend the night at my father's cousin's place so we didn't have much to do but chat about the situation.
The next morning we tried again to go home but the street-safety forecast wasn't reassuring at all, long story short, we were able to return home only on the third day seizing the chance of a gap in the "enemy's" checkpoints.
I'm still keeping an eye on the developments over there and I talk to some relatives frequently over the phone and I encourage them to do something to put an end to this sad situation and expose the perpetrators. Most of them share my attitude but they say they're still studying the mechanism of action, one of them said "we need to revolt against them."
What I see in this case is that the majority is not interested in being involved in this kind of conflict but, at the same time action and reaction from gangs that do not represent the majority are capable of finding a rift among the lines of what normally is a peaceful community.
I truly hope things end in the way I and the majority of my people like, after all, bonds created and maintained over centuries are no doubt stronger than the evil doings and ill wishes of a few mad criminals.