In Mahmudiyah, tensions were at a boiling point before Samarra mosque attack
MAHMUDIYAH, Iraq — Col. Hussein was a politically connected Iraqi army officer, a Sunni married to a Shiite, and well respected by U.S. troops for his ability to get fractious sectarian leaders to work together for a stable, civil government.
In January, Hussein was found dead on a rural roadside, his hands and feet bound and an execution-style bullet wound in the back of the head. It was Shiite militants, many believe, who killed him.
In early February, Sunni and Shiite tensions ratcheted up when the local mayor, also a Sunni married to a Shiite woman and known for uniting rival Muslim clans, disappeared. U.S troops blame the kidnapping — or possible homicide — on a shadowy nexus of local police and Shiite militias.
Now, with the entire country on virtual lockdown since the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra on Tuesday and a spate of sectarian reprisal attacks across Iraq, U.S. troops here are keeping an hour-by-hour watch on this city 20 miles south of the capital, bracing for an eruption of violence.
“I’ve been very touchy about a civil war going on here,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Kunk, commander of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne division, which oversees this city of more than 200,000 and the surrounding towns and villages.
“It used to be simmering, and now it is boiling,” Kunk said Friday morning at his office at Forward Operating Base Mahmudiyah.
Kunk said his troops are watching over “an eerie calm” here in the city that is majority Sunni, but where the Shiite leaders in recent weeks have set the stage for an overt and aggressive takeover.
Mahmudiyah’s city center lies on a demographic fault line where the Sunni population in central Iraq begins to fade into the largely Shiite provinces of the south and includes key roads linking Shiites with the capital.
Intelligence reports say gun-toting Shiite militiamen are roaming the city’s Sunni neighborhoods, intimidating Sunni residents, throwing them out of their homes and in some cases killing them.
On Friday morning, U.S. troops watched as dozens of trucks bearing caskets drove south from Baghdad into the city. Soldiers fear the coffins may be a method for Sunnis to discretely smuggle weapons into the region to prepare for open sectarian warfare. Traffic checkpoints run by the Iraqi army found no weapons, U.S. troops said.
Also on Friday, troops turned away a convoy of about 1,000 Shiites who said they were heading north to Samarra to protest the mosque bombing.
At least one rocket landed in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood. No casualties were reported.
In response, U.S. troops have stepped up patrols, with soldiers looking for telltale signs of sectarian aggression, such as a black flags over a Sunni mosque, indicating Shiite militias have overtaken the holy site.
Shiite militias and sectarian violence in the city are just one concern for Kunk and his battalion. Several miles to the west, troops securing farmland near the Euphrates River are battling a tenacious Sunni insurgency that has taken the lives of 14 soldiers since the Fort Campbell, Ky.-based unit arrived here about four months ago.
Buildings at the base shook Friday as American artillerymen fired large counter-battery missiles at Sunni insurgents lobbing mortar rounds at U.S.-run traffic checkpoints several miles away.
The Shiite militias operate openly in Mahmudiyah, but they carefully avoid doing so in front of U.S. forces. A network of informants tells the militants when U.S. troops are nearby, giving them time to conceal their weapons and blend into the general population, U.S. soldiers said.
So far Kunk has tried to quell sectarian tensions diplomatically, wielding his clout as an American battle commander to support and empower individual Iraqis working for a unified government.
“I try to do that through relationships, through engagement,” Kunk said.
One example was a meeting last week during which Kunk brought together a group of disgruntled Sunni sheiks and the leader of a mostly Shiite police commando team that has arrested many Sunnis suspected of insurgent activity.
The meeting was designed to defuse tensions over the police force and its aggressive operations, but the sheiks’ concerns quickly digressed to their outrage at the Shiite militias.
“It’s getting worse and worse by the day. We have seen a lot of people getting shot and killed and thrown out on the street,” a prominent Sunni sheik, Rasoil Jasim, said at the meeting.
Kunk acknowledged the Sunni sheiks’ concerns, but also said he has limited authority to rein in the Shiite militias.
“I hear you loud and clear when you tell me that there are militias in Mahmudiyah. I do not tolerate them nor will the coalition forces or any of my soldiers,” Kunk told them.
The U.S. troops trying to create a local government and peaceful discourse say they suffered serious setbacks with the recent killings of prominent Sunni leaders, which may have fundamentally altered the politics of the region.
“We were on this glide path and we were moving forward with guys who were really laying it on the line for the good of Iraq. These were the new kind of Iraqis who believed in national unity,” Kunk said. “And then ‘boom,’ it crashed.”