BAGHDAD — He fought alongside U.S. troops battling Al Qaeda militants on the streets of Adhamiya, one of Baghdad’s most treacherous districts during the long American-led occupation. Now he is ready to take up arms against the Iraqi government that he once fought to preserve.
“We are prepared to fight and die,” said Hatem, a blacksmith by trade, his face contorted in stress as he described a daily routine of police and army intimidation here in one of the Iraqi capital’s signature Sunni Muslim neighborhoods. “We have sleeper cells in place. This area is about to explode.”
The sense of frustration and even desperation is pervasive these days among residents of Adhamiya, at one time a bastion of culture and learning and more recently a hotbed of violence during the 2006-07 civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Today, residents are proud that their sons both fiercely resisted U.S. invaders and then joined forces with their former adversaries as part of the so-called Awakening movement, in which the U.S. military paid ex-insurgents and others to fight Al Qaeda-style hard-liners. Hatem, 36, a father of four, was one of hundreds of Sunnis from Adhamiya who signed up.
But the residents of Adhamiya and other mostly Sunni areas are now facing a more entrenched foe: the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and its heavy-handed security forces.
In interviews here, Adhamiya residents complained of a pattern of harassment, random arrests and illegal imprisonment — the kinds of grievances that helped detonate the rebellion raging in Sunni-dominated provinces to the north and west.
Those interviewed said they empathized with Sunni fighters who have seized large swaths of Iraqi territory, but insisted that they did not back the Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway faction spearheading the rebellion. Whether their professed antipathy against the militants was authentic or meant for Western consumption was not clear.
Though the discontent evident in Adhamiya and other Sunni districts could break into open warfare, Sunni insurgents would face daunting odds against the Shiite-dominated security forces and allied militias in the overwhelmingly Shiite capital.
Nonetheless, the antagonism toward Maliki and his security services seems genuine — and overwhelming.
“We’re all prisoners here — the entire neighborhood,” said Mohammed, a 30-year-old car mechanic who, like others interviewed, requested that his full name not be used for security reasons.
Mohammed said he had spent a week trying to get his elderly father out of jail after a recent police sweep landed dozens in custody. At one point, he said, a dismissive police guard told him: “You are all Al Qaeda,” referring to all Sunnis.
His younger brother, Abdullah, recently escaped to the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq after having been arrested seven times, he said.
“I spent all my savings trying to get him out of jail, paying bail, paying bribes,” Mohammed said in his apartment here, adding that the total was $45,000. “Finally I told him he had to leave.”
The government denies that it favors Shiites or acts in a sectarian fashion. But most Sunnis appear to see it otherwise.
Many are still enraged that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, the late strongman who was a popular figure in Adhamiya — and was famously last publicly seen here before being captured by U.S. forces in December 2003 in a hide-out near Tikrit. The ouster of Hussein, a Sunni, upended the nation’s sectarian balance, empowering the long-repressed Shiite majority and marginalizing Sunnis, who had enjoyed a measure of preference in Hussein’s Iraq.
During the U.S.-led occupation, Adhamiya became infamous as a hub of snipers and roadside bombs targeting American forces. On several occasions, U.S. soldiers sealed off the entire neighborhood. Then, in 2007, at the height of the Sunni-Shiite conflict, the U.S. Army erected a 12-foot-high, 3-mile-long concrete wall around Adhamiya, ostensibly to protect residents from attacks by Shiite paramilitaries. Residents were enraged.
Today, the police and military maintain a robust presence on the streets of Adhamiya, resembling an occupying army. Police commandos in helmets and body armor now man the Humvees once driven by U.S. troops. Checkpoints ring off the neighborhood. Security men staff high-profile posts, including one in front of the Abu Hanifa mosque, the capital’s major Sunni shrine and the spiritual heart of Adhamiya.
Still, the neighborhood remains a lively place in the evenings, with cafes and restaurants doing a brisk business and many people on the streets. But residents insisted on speaking to a reporter behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of the security services and their webs of informers.
“They have spies everywhere,” said a shopkeeper who gave his name as Abu Ali, speaking deep in the cool shade of his grocery store on a recent blazing afternoon. “We’re basically under siege here. If you’re not off the streets by 11 p.m. you’re likely to be arrested or shot.”
The Sunni uprising in the north and west has only made things worse, residents say. On several occasions, residents said, brazen convoys of Shiite militiamen have paraded provocatively down the main drag leading to the Abu Hanifa mosque in a show of strength and a not-so thinly veiled warning.
Fearing that the violence is bound to escalate, many residents have decamped — for the Kurdish-controlled north, for Jordan, Lebanon, wherever they can get to. Flights out of Baghdad are heavily booked, travel agents report. Many of those who remain are marshaling their resources, hesitant to spend cash that may be needed for a quick escape. Nearby Syria, with its own civil war, is hardly an option.
“I have thousands of dollars in unfinished orders — no one wants to pay me,” said a portly pane-glass merchant who gave his name as Abu Mohammed.
“Everyone is worried, or thinking of leaving,” said the 37-year-old father of two, who fled to Syria after the U.S.-led invasion. “But where can one go now? Where is the sanctuary?”
In a nearby alley, a woman who gave her name as Um Fadla showed a reporter a poster bearing photographs of her five brothers — all killed during the 2006-07 sectarian bloodletting, she said. All stare innocuously from the frames in ID-style snapshots. Only one of their bodies was found, she added.
Recent history may be about to repeat itself, Um Fadla warned.
“I don’t want my brothers’ fate to be the fate of others,” she said, hastening back to her home with the solemn images of her lost brothers, their stares frozen in time.
Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.