Sectarian violence failed to force Sunnis from land
Stars and Stripes March 5, 2008
BAGHDAD — The men of the Ugaidat tribe were not going down, not without a fight.
On a blazing August afternoon in 2006, leaders of this Sunni tribe in western Baghdad’s Topchi district received word that the Mahdi Army was coming.
Hundreds of Shiites were preparing to attack and push the Ugaidatis out of an area their ancestors had held for 400 years.
This Sunni enclave sat in the middle of an area being systematically cleared of Sunnis during the sectarian bloodletting of 2006.
Although outnumbered, tribal leaders made plans to fight for their neighborhood. Tipped that the attack was imminent, the Ugaidatis — many former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army — put their training to work.
They put snipers in their tallest buildings; they established defensive positions on their narrow, sharp-angled streets, said “Omar,” a tribal leader who didn’t want his name published out of safety concerns.
When the Mahdi Army came, only about a dozen Ugaidati men stood ready to defend their streets, Omar said.
The untrained Mahdi Army members attacked, transported in Iraqi army vehicles and firetrucks while sporting rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Omar said.
The Ugaidatis fired furiously and randomly to give the impression they had more men, Omar said. An 85-year-old man fired an old-fashioned sniper rifle from atop one of the neighborhood’s tallest buildings into the street, Omar claimed.
“We used rumors that we had more fighters,” he said. “It’s a psychological war before we start.”
In all, Omar claimed, the Ugaidat men repelled a Mahdi force of around 1,000.
While that number could not be independently confirmed, a Shiite translator who lives in the area said that he heard similar figures when the attack happened.
“They didn’t imagine how we will protect ourselves,” Omar said. “Thank God we didn’t lose any men and nobody got injured.”
After the attack was repelled, an uneasy amnesty was brokered between the Mahdi Army and the Ugaidat tribe, Omar said.
Barricades were erected at the three access points to the neighborhood, and the Ugaidatis didn’t leave their turf for a month.
And there they sit today, nearly two years later. The roughly 100 families sharing this space of a few square kilometers can only access the rest of the city via a busy thoroughfare to the north of their neighborhood.
The rest of Topchi lies to the south, blocked by crude barricades and a lingering sectarian tension that tribal men said did not exist before the war.
“We have about 100 young men, they have jobs outside this area,” Omar said. “But the majority of the young men don’t have a job and hang around all day.”
Some of the youth are impromptu guards for the neighborhood, ready to alert the tribe if any outsiders walk through, according to Army Capt. Chris Bowers, the commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, which oversees Topchi.
“They really can’t leave,” Bowers said of the Ugaidatis. “We’re the only friends they’ve got, and they can’t go out and manage their businesses because they’re scared.”
The deterioration of life for Topchi’s Sunnis came gradually, Omar said. Like in other neighborhoods, Sunni and Shiites lived in peace before the war, he said. But in 2004, Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers set up shop here.
After the Mahdi Army’s arrival, Topchi’s Sunnis began to feel the pressure.
“They got criminals and thugs, gave them jobs, and armed them,” said another tribal leader.
In late 2004, a Mahdi Army sign was put up in the neighborhood that essentially read, “Sunnis, leave this area or else.”
“They started killing the people from the small (Sunni) tribes who didn’t have power,” Omar said. “They started kidnapping people, killing them and throwing them on trash.”
The tribe was left alone until April 2006, one Ugaidat man said. The bombing of the Shiite Askariya Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 escalated the situation, Omar said, and soon messages were being broadcast on TV urging Mahdi Army members to get rid of the Sunnis.
“It was the first real spark for the fire,” he said.
Now that more U.S. soldiers are on the ground, Omar said things are slowly improving, but that American forces weren’t in the area in 2006 and “didn’t know what was going on.”
The Mahdi Army stand-down ordered by al-Sadr late last year also helped calm the area.
Al-Sadr extended that cease-fire last month.
Despite the attacks they’ve sustained, one tribal leader said his people are ready to move on.
“We are a peaceful people,” he said. “If something happened, we will forgive everybody. Not all the (Mahdi Army) is our enemy, just the killer.”
Unit finds drastic differences between neighborhoods
BAGHDAD — It’s a tale of two cities for the men of Company C, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment.
Working in the western part of the city, Cobra company oversees areas that still bear the scars of Shiite-Sunni violence, along with a neighborhood that resisted the sectarian bloodletting of the past few years.
Among other neighborhoods, Cobra company soldiers patrol Ali Sala, a wealthy neighborhood whose Sunni and Shiite neighbors didn’t splinter in the sectarian violence in Baghdad.
But just a few minutes’ walk away, literally on the other side of a main thoroughfare, they’re also patrolling the Topchi district, a once mixed area that became a Mahdi Army stronghold with a nearly homogenous and impoverished Shiite population.
Topchi needs its Sunnis to return, according to Capt. Chris Bowers.
“A lot of people who left were the doctors and lawyers,” said Bowers, of Virginia Beach, Va. “We’re all tracking that there’s a (reintegration) plan. But everybody’s waiting to see what the final plan is from the Iraqi government.”
The differences between Ali Sala and Topchi are palpable, and while soldiers on patrol last month said their bearing and actions remain constant wherever they are, local interaction and demeanors change on each side of the road.
Ali Sala looks like any town. Corner stores bustle with customers, while other residents hang out on the street chatting with their neighbors.
Bowers stopped to chat with local teenagers and briefly danced to the music piping out of one kid’s cell phone.
The area has been mixed for as long as resident Thair Mahmood can remember.
“You haven’t found anybody without Shiite or Sunni family members,” Thair said through a translator. “My sister, her husband is Shiite. My brother, his wife is Shiite.”
Thair said he has a son named Omar, which is a popular Sunni name, and another named Ali, a Shiite name.
“People from outside came and made sectarian violence,” he said.
Thair, who runs a neighborhood library, said the fact that residents are “very educated” helped them resist the violence that engulfed other parts of the city during the war.
“It’s very simple,” he said. “Love and live together, and love each other. This is the rule of life.”
— Geoff Ziezulewicz