The air on this July morning was thick with dust, a gritty haze blunting the sun’s ferocious rays but trapping its heat. It was around 9 a.m., and despite the early hour, the car park outside the city’s morgue, in the central neighborhood of Bab al-Mu’atham, was already full of families waiting to collect their dead.
A dozen or so women, all wearing loose black cloaks and head scarves, spilled out of a minivan, wailing and weeping as they rhythmically beat their chests in a gesture of deep mourning. They crowded around another vehicle with a coffin strapped to its roof that emerged from a gap in the concrete blast walls around the morgue. The casket was covered in black fabric, indicating that the deceased was a woman. Other coffins, shrouded in blankets or left bare, were for men who had died nonviolent deaths. Those draped in the Iraqi flag were for martyrs.
In many ways, the Iraqi capital feels as suspended as the dust in the air that day. Baghdad is on a war footing, but not quite at war. It is still relatively peaceful, but not at peace. Talk is rife of Iraq’s unraveling.
Lines on a map are just one type of boundary. In some ways Iraq is already partitioned. The mental and emotional borders between some communities are as real as the concrete barriers that separate neighborhoods.
It would be convenient to speak of Iraq’s sectarian communities as monolithic blocs, but it would be wrong. Rising tension between followers of Shiite Islam and the Sunni branch is not indicative of a religious or spiritual dispute. At its root it’s about power and control of territory and resources, cloaked in religion. Differences of religion or sect are merely another identifier to highlight the “otherness” of what in essence are competing political agendas. And within each sect there are different political agendas—there are deep intra-Shiite and intra-Sunni disputes, and there are ties that transcend religious identity.
Ethnicity also complicates the picture. Many Iraqi Kurds, for example, are Sunni, but that doesn’t mean they share the same political vision as most Sunni in Baghdad. Their ethnic identity trumps sectarian affiliation with other Iraqis.
Almost 80 percent of Iraqis are Arab; most of the rest are Kurds. Shiites make up about 60 percent of the population; Sunnis, some 15 to 20 percent; and a mix of other minorities, including Christians, the remainder.
Under Saddam Hussein, from the 1980s until the Sunni dictator’s ouster in the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, it was generally considered rude to directly ask a person’s sect or ethnicity, although that information could, for instance, be gleaned from a question about a hometown, which might be predominantly Shiite, or Christian, or Kurdish.
Iraqis of all persuasions blame the U.S. for introducing quota systems that ensured that sectarian and ethnic identity would be the major organizing principle in post-Saddam Iraqi politics. Iraqis were now reduced to their base sectarian or ethnic identity, and the new balance of power favored the Shiites. So now, a decade after the institutionalization of U.S.-promoted demographic profiling, what does it mean to be an Iraqi, especially when the very seams of this patchwork society appear to be fraying and borders are shifting—on the ground if not on paper?
Events in the past few months have strained multiethnic, multisectarian Iraq. On June 10, a coalition of armed Sunni groups stormed across the northwest, snatching the predominantly Sunni city of Mosul, and then Tikrit. The coalition included Baathists once loyal to Saddam, as well as radical militants with the Islamic State, or IS (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), a rogue one-time al Qaeda affiliate so extreme that the main organization disavowed it in February.
Filling the vacuum left by the fleeing Iraqi army, the Kurds, who for decades have administered their semiautonomous enclave in the north, pushed into the disputed city of Kirkuk—which they claim as their Jerusalem—under the guise of defending it from the IS. Kurdish leaders have now called for a referendum on independence.
By the end of June, the IS had announced a caliphate in the parts of Syria and Iraq it controlled, reviving a transnational Islamist system of governance in the region that ended in 1924, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Soon after Mosul fell, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a call to arms in a fatwa, or religious edict. All able-bodied citizens must “defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places.” Although the fatwa wasn’t framed as a Shiite mobilization against Sunnis, existing Shiite sectarian militias answered the call by beefing up their numbers, while new groups rapidly formed.
“We’re in a tight spot,” the mufti of one Sunni mosque told me. “We’re between al Qaeda, which is considered Sunni, and the government, which is considered Shiite. At the moment, I’m accused by the Iraqi government of being with al Qaeda because I have not spoken out against DAESH [an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State]. I can’t speak out against DAESH, not because I like them but because my people are in their areas. They will kill them if I speak. So how do I get out of this situation?”
Morgue workers I spoke to said that Baghdad has not yet returned to times like its darkest days after 2006, when Shiite and Sunni sectarian death squads killed at whim, and dozens of bodies were dumped in the streets every day. But they’re seeing more unidentified victims from all across the capital killed violently, especially since June.
“We used to see one or two bodies a day,” one worker told me on condition of anonymity. “Now, we’re seeing in the tens. We see some very strange cases—there was a boy who was sawn in half at his waist. He was about 12 years old. But the ones we see the most are the ones who are blindfolded with their hands tied.”
Among the vehicles in the morgue’s car park was a silver minivan. Inside were two grizzled, middle-aged men who were waiting to retrieve the body of their cousin, Abu Abbas, 45, murdered in his home the night before. There was no coffin attached to the vehicle’s roof. They intended to transport him inconspicuously inside the van, just as they’d done the night before when they rushed him to the hospital where he died.
Abu Abbas had been shot three times in the head and neck by masked gunmen who knocked on his door around sunset, just before he and his family were to break the daily sunrise-to-sundown fast observed by Muslims during the month of Ramadan.
The dead man wasn’t a member of a political party, the security forces, or a militiaman, his cousins said. He sold cheap plastic goods from a street-side stall. He was a Sunni living in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Husseiniya, in northern Baghdad.
The message of his death was clear, one of the cousins, Abu Mohannad, said: “We are all potential targets. We cannot live in peace. We aren’t safe anywhere, not even in our homes.”
They too lived in Husseiniya. “After what happened in Mosul, things started to get worse for us,” Abu Mohannad added, referring to the IS attack on the city. “It’s not a nice thing to say, Sunni or Shiite. We should say we are Iraqi, but honestly, we don’t.”
He was now thinking of taking his family and leaving Baghdad. “I want to go to whatever area most belongs to me, either Mosul or some other Sunni area—or Erbil [in Iraqi Kurdistan]. This is just the beginning,” he said. “It’s going to get a lot worse.”
Inside the morgue’s courtyard, near the large blue metal doors where the bodies are handed over to families, another group of men waited to take home a 32-year-old policeman who’d been killed by a sniper while on duty near the airport. The dead man, Alaa Sibi, was a Shiite, and his family blamed his death on an al Qaeda sleeper cell—shorthand for Sunnis.
“We’ve learned through experience that in Iraq, young men die; they’re killed,” one of his relatives said. He clutched the dead man’s laminated ID card as he paced in the yard. “We’re used to this now. There’s no solution to this. I don’t see one.”
Many of Baghdad’s Sunnis are afraid. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the neighborhood of Adhamiya, along the Tigris River. On a recent Friday, worshippers shuffled into the cool interior of the imposing Abu Hanifa mosque to attend noontime prayers.
A police van was parked outside the mosque near a security checkpoint. It was flying an Iraqi flag as well as a smaller black flag depicting an image of Imam Hussein, a revered Shiite figure and one of the sect’s earliest historical martyrs. Shiite iconography is common at government security checkpoints.
Adhamiya is a no-car zone before Friday prayers—only taxis whose owners present a permit certifying that they live in the area are allowed. To enter many neighborhoods in Baghdad now, proof of residence must be provided at security checkpoints. Drivers without such proof have their ID and car registration papers held until they leave the area, a security measure that also reinforces neighborhood identity.
Em Salam, 58, had come early to Abu Hanifa, almost two hours before prayers. Sitting on the carpeted floor, resting against a pillar in the women’s section, she prayed loudly for the safe arrival of two of her daughters and their families. They were trying to escape from Diyala after being threatened by masked gunmen. Diyala, a mixed province northeast of Baghdad, was also mired in fighting by the Islamic State and its allies against the government.
Em Salam clutched a color photocopy of her son-in-law’s ID. Like hundreds of women who wait at the mosque every day, she was hoping for a food basket. Abu Hanifa mosque has registered some 6,000 displaced families in Adhamiya alone and distributed well over 8,000 food baskets in the past few months. But Em Salam was told she was ineligible because she wasn’t displaced. Her daughter’s husband would have to come in person to receive assistance when the families arrived from Diyala.
Walking the short distance home along a dusty street flanked by the mosque’s high walls on one side and the bank of the Tigris on the other, Em Salam passed a graveyard of some 4,000 local people killed in sectarian violence since 2006, before entering a warren of alleyways barely wide enough for a car.
Although not displaced, she couldn’t afford to pay rent and was squatting in a modest house with her elderly, sick husband and one of her two sons, Adam, 23. “I don’t want to live in Iraq anymore. I’ve had enough,” she told me. “We’re scared and tired. I fear for my sons.”
She’d lost two brothers in the Iran-Iraq war during the eighties and four more in the sectarian war after 2006. “I won’t let him go anywhere he needs to get into a car to reach,” she said, gesturing toward Adam. “He stays around these few streets. There’s no security. Now my Iraq has been reduced to Adhamiya.”
Em Salam’s mother was Sunni, her father Shiite, and like many of her generation, she was raised not knowing or caring to differentiate between the two Muslim sects. You can’t tell a nonclerical Sunni from a Shiite unless you see him or her praying. Many Sunni women in Adhamiya dress in chadors, which are more commonly worn by Shiite women. Certain names can reveal a sectarian identity but not always. “Omar,” for instance, is predominantly Sunni, while “Ali” is mainly Shiite.
Adam stood in his room, which was bare but for a thin mattress covered with mismatched sheets. The window, minus glass, offered a view across the river of the Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya.
For Adam, Kadhimiya might as well be another country. He had Shiite friends there who visit him, but he didn’t dare go to their homes. “If I go there, I can’t be certain I’ll come back. They have militias and control the government. We don’t.”
He spoke of friends detained in recent government raids and of others who’d fled overseas or been killed. “We’re living as if we’re already dead. We don’t know when a car bomb might go off, or a militia takes us. Look at my life. Is this a way to live? I feel choked, strangled.”
He had no faith in the army or the security forces. “The army is not a force that I can consider national, when the government is sectarian,” he said, notwithstanding that his older brother, Salam, 29, was in the military. “He’s not fighting for anything except his paycheck—that’s why he joined.” (Salam’s salary was about a million Iraqi dinars a month—$860—a livable but not lavish wage.)
To Sheikh Abdel-Sattar Abdel-Jabbar Abbas, 57, mufti of the Sunni Abu Hanifa mosque in Adhamiya, the fears of men like Adam are understandable. In a wide-ranging interview in his home, he said he too was fearful. He outlined three reasons Sunnis feel increasingly persecuted by the Shiite-led government: an anti-terror law that he claimed was used as a pretext to hunt Sunnis; the closure of a number of Sunni mosques allegedly serving as weapons warehouses; and the arrest or hounding of prominent Sunni political figures on what he considered specious allegations.
In 2003, weeks after the fall of Saddam’s regime, Sheikh Abdel-Sattar was part of a Sunni delegation that met with prominent Shiite religious figures, including Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, in a bid to calm tensions and present a united front. He lost five brothers, two sons, and a brother-in-law in the ensuing sectarian violence.
“I was one of the first to reach out to the Shiites, and I paid this price,” he said. He won’t repeat the outreach this time. “My conviction has weakened. I’m not against the idea, but in my heart I’m scared to do it. I was the reason they were all killed.”
Like Adam, he feels confined to his community. “You know, I have no idea what the Shiite street thinks. A few times at night I’ve driven through Karrada”—a predominantly Christian-Shiite neighborhood. “I’ve thought I’d love to bring my family here, to the ice cream shops, but I’m afraid.” He paused. “We will not become three states,” he finally said. “Each area is a mini-state. Each neighborhood.”
In the mixed neighborhood of Ghazaliya, thigh-high concrete barriers partition Sunni and Shiite streets. In places, the left side of a street is Shiite, the right Sunni, or vice versa.
Abu Haidar, 59, a former army general, now a realtor, is a longtime resident. He said the demographic reordering based on sect happened in 2006, and that there’s been little change since. But sectarian tensions are rising again. The men in turbans, and their religious parties, were fomenting the divisions, he said.
A strip of Sunni-owned stores was vandalized shortly after the fall of Mosul on June 10. Storefronts were smashed, and unidentified assailants killed one vendor. A general store in the next block on the same street is still open, unmolested. “It’s Shiite,” a resident said by way of explanation.
In the 1980s, when Abu Haidar moved here, Ghazaliya was a neighborhood inhabited mostly by Iraqi military officers who were both Sunni and Shiite. Although a Shiite, he still lives in what has now become a Sunni street. The change is immaterial to him because he and his neighbors have known each other for decades.
“True Iraqis,” he said, want to live together—with the exception of the Kurds, who “were born to be a source of instability for us.” He had fought for his country, losing his left arm in the Iran-Iraq war, and one of his sons was a pilot in the Iraqi air force. The changes of the past decade had diluted the common Iraqi identity he’d strived to instill in his eight children. “The focus is all on sectarian identity, on who you are, and from where, at a time when the country we sacrificed for, and our grandfathers fought for, and sacrificed, and built…” His voice trailed off. “I’m not optimistic.”
Across the river from Em Salam, an ornate shrine with two golden domes and four minarets stands as the heart of the Shiite suburb of Kadhimiya.
On a recent evening, hundreds of people sat in lines on plastic straw mats, gender segregated, along the main, pedestrian-only boulevard leading to the shrine. Bowls of lentil soup and plates of dates were laid out in front of them. They waited patiently to break their Ramadan fast as the Muslim call to prayer floated down.
Abbas Khazali, 51, stood outside his jewelry store directing the dozen volunteers who worked with him from seven o’clock every morning during Ramadan, preparing the food he and several friends had paid for. They served between 1,000 and 1,500 people a day for free, and had done so for nearly a decade, Khazali said.
His neighbor Rashid al-Dulaimi, 45, who owned the currency exchange next door to Khazali’s jewelry store, was furiously ladling out scoops of rice from a giant metal vat, while another man spooned a potato-and-chicken dish onto Styrofoam plates to be distributed to the people along the boulevard. It was only after the vats were emptied, and most people had broken their fast, that Khazali, Dulaimi, and several other men withdrew to the jewelry store to eat.
Khazali was a Shiite married to a Sunni, and Dulaimi was a Sunni. “I live here, and my grandfather lived here,” Dulaimi said. “This is my home. Those who kill Shiites and Sunnis are neither Shiites nor Sunnis. They’re criminals. Those who want to divide us and partition Iraq are the Kurds—that’s it,” he insisted.
His friend Khazali couldn’t understand why people in Adhamiya were afraid to come to Kadhimiya. “We are threatened as Shiites. The [Sunni] extremists want to kill us,” he said. “The clean Sunnis who don’t agree with the extremists fight with us. We are all Iraqis.”
Khazali also said it was the Kurds who were fueling talk of partition, although he spoke of the areas now “occupied” by the Islamic State and its Sunni allies.
Iraq’s Kurds have long pushed for autonomy. A Western-imposed no-fly zone over predominantly Kurdish parts of northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War helped consolidate their hold over their areas. Men like Khazali and Dulaimi resent what they consider blatant Kurdish attempts to snatch territory and break up the country.
In an office in the suburb of Jadriya, in the south of the city, Shiite Sheikh Raed al-Khafaja, who heads the large Khafaja tribe, shared that view. “Our Kurdish brothers stole Kirkuk,” he said. “We’ll liberate it by force.” The sheikh wore a military uniform rather than his traditional tribal robes and had vowed to dress that way “until we liberate [Mosul] and Kirkuk from the gangs and mercenaries.”
The sheikh said he’d recruited 3,000 volunteers in the past 20 days. The men were waiting to be trained by the Iraqi army. He intended to send another 1,500 to Kirkuk.
He was sitting in front of three flags—two Iraqi flags and one depicting the name of his tribe—positioned under a rifle held together with clear tape. His forebears had used the weapon against the British during the anti-colonial revolt of the 1920s, and today, he said, foreigners once again threatened Iraq.
“We must cleanse the land of the foreigners and stand with Iraqis who say they want rights from the government.” The problem with the Sunnis, he said, was that they still wanted to rule. “For 1,400 years they were kings,” he said, referring to the period after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. “The Shiites are the majority in Iraq. Our Sunni brothers say they’re oppressed or persecuted. For how many years? Ten? We were patient for 1,400.”
The Christian community in Iraq is almost as old as Christianity, but its adherents, more than most, face persecution. In Mosul, 225 miles (362 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Islamic State militants drove out Christians, demanding that they convert to Islam—or pay a tax, leave the city, or face death. Christian homes were spray-painted with the letter N for Nasrani, Arabic for Nazarene.
At a 6:00 p.m. Mass at St. George Chaldean Church, in the mainly Shiite suburb of Baghdad Al Jadida, every pew was full for the second of two Sunday services. After congratulating the under-16 soccer team for winning the interparish tournament, Father Miyassir al-Mokhlasee, 45, stepped down from the altar to be closer to his congregation.
He’d just returned from a meeting of Baghdad’s Christian clergy, he told the worshippers. “Our message to you is, don’t be afraid. The Church is your home. We’re not sure what we can do, but we will try, starting with praying for this country. The reason for what is happening is that everybody thinks of themselves, and everyone is scared of everyone else.”
“The situation doesn’t look good,” Father Miyassir had told me privately before the Mass. There were almost 5,000 Christian families in Baghdad Al Jadida before 2003, he said, but now there were only about 400, a number bolstered by Christians displaced from other neighborhoods. “We try to encourage our people to stay, but many are leaving. It’s frightening.”
Blast walls ringed the church. Some were decorated with hand-drawn Christian iconography, like the Virgin Mary. Seven of the eight young policemen on guard around the perimeter were Christians. “Why did you come to this hell?” one policeman, David, 21, asked me. “All my neighbors ran away; all my friends are in America. I’m by myself in this hell. Can you help us leave?”
The policemen felt trapped. Those living in mixed Sunni-Christian areas said they avoided Shiite neighborhoods lest they be mistaken for a Sunni, while those in mixed Shiite-Christian places stayed away from Sunni districts. “If we don’t leave, we may be killed, and our country loses us,” said Luay, 24. “If we migrate, our country loses us. So either way, we lose. It’s just a question of how.”
After Mass, churchgoers mingled in the courtyard as the sun set. Some headed toward the hall, where condolences were being accepted over the death of a 51-year-old man, of heart problems. Dozens of men stood around several long tables, set end to end and covered with plates of food. They ate silently in memory of the deceased. Many of them were his Muslim neighbors, who had chosen to break their daily fast with their Christian neighbors instead of their families. “This is Iraq—the real Iraq,” one of the dead man’s relatives said proudly, pointing to the table. “This still exists.”
Across Iraq, armies of volunteers are gathering. Most, like those in Baghdad, and in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, about a hundred miles south of the capital, are doing so under the auspices of the state and the fatwa issued by al-Sistani.
At Najaf’s police academy, a sprawling building surrounded by empty fields, a wind-shredded copy of the fatwa is taped to the outer gate. Inside the academy, five groups of perhaps a hundred men each sat on the floor, focused on instructors standing near Formica desks topped with a PKC machine gun. The men were dressed in mismatched military and security uniforms they’d bought themselves. (A uniform costs about $30 U.S.) They also had to provide their own guns. The day’s lesson was how to use a PKC.
“This is a war of the streets!” one instructor said. “We’re fighting terrorists, so you need to know how to move with the PKC!”
At the end of that demonstration, the men applauded. Although the police academy is a national, not sectarian, institution, they repeated Shiite chants.
In another training exercise, two lines of men, each carrying a wooden rifle and decked in bulletproof vests and helmets, walked in formation (or tried to), mimicking a foot patrol.
“Don’t keep your gun high, and focus on what you’re pointing at!” yelled a beefy instructor in a beige uniform, cap, and aviator glasses.
“Be a man, don’t be scared of the sun! Focus on the tops of the buildings!” he bellowed at a recruit.
The police academy’s chief, General Qais Jaafari, said about 9,000 men had passed through his two-week training course. Across Najaf, some 60,000 volunteers had registered, another official told me, including 400 women who were mainly posted at checkpoints to search women.
General Qais didn’t think the militias, especially those associated with political parties, posed a threat to the state or other citizens: “The state’s institutions are overseeing and organizing this project so that it is not outside its auspices and will later be difficult to control. It’s not chaotic,” he said.
After nightfall in Najaf, some public spaces brim with volunteers training in ad hoc militias. Men in mismatched military uniforms marched along a street behind an Iraqi flag, past cars full of families enjoying the cooler nighttime air.
“We heed the call, Ali! We heed the call, Hussein!” they chanted, referring to the Shiite faith’s most revered historical figures, after Prophet Muhammad.
In a dusty field, some 600 men from a 2,600-man volunteer force known as Al-Mortada Brigade gathered to train, as they did every night from nine o’clock to eleven o’clock. The brigade was affiliated with Najaf’s holiest site, the Imam Ali Shrine, and was formed by its security team after the IS assault on Mosul, to defend the shrine.
The brigade’s commander, Khalid Shamoon, said his volunteers had also been deployed to Mosul, Tikrit, and elsewhere to fight alongside government troops.
On this night, the training was replaced by a parade in front of turbaned clerics sitting on a podium. The men kicked up swirls of dust as they marched (not in lock-step) around the field. What they lacked in coordination, they made up for in zeal.
Hamid Shaker, 38, said he’d returned two months ago from Syria, where he’d been fighting with Syrian government troops against Sunni insurgents, expressly to fight Sunni insurgents in his own country. “I’m seeking martyrdom. See my son?” he said, grabbing the shoulder of a 12-year-old dressed in a shiny gray suit. “I wish martyrdom for him. We’re fighting the enemies of God, and I will sacrifice my son to protect my religion.”
The guest of honor was a prominent Shiite cleric, Sayyid Mohammad Bahr al-Uloom, a one-time president of the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council. The white-bearded, black-turbaned cleric rose to address the men: “We’re relying on you, and God,” he said. “You are driven by your ideology, your religion, your country! This is Iraq!” he said, waving a hand over the crowd. “These are the Shiites, the soldiers of God!”
The crowd erupted in Shiite chants, also shouting, “Yes, yes, to Iraq!”
The sacrifice demanded of those men had been made clear earlier at the Imam Ali Shrine. One of the flag-draped coffins carried into the mosque for funeral prayers held Mehdi Abdullah Jama, a 22-year-old soldier killed in Samarra the day before.
His five brothers wept uncontrollably among the men and women sitting on the carpeted floor in quiet contemplation or reading. Some men joined the family in prayer. Afterward, the coffin was sprayed with rose water before being strapped to the roof of a car and taken in a small convoy to Najaf’s Valley of Peace cemetery, one of the world’s largest.
The soldier’s mother, in black, sat weeping in the dirt among the graves. “My son, my son,” she repeated. The young man had been married just four months earlier, to a Sunni. “His wedding seems like just yesterday, and now we are burying him,” his father said.
“He volunteered to protect the shrine here,” one mourner yelled. “Why did they send him to Samarra?”
The mother wailed as her son was lowered into the ground. “May God curse those who put you under this soil!” she said.
A male mourner tried to console her. “Don’t cry for a martyr,” he said. “He is a martyr. You shouldn’t cry for him.”
At 7:07 p.m., just as the sun was starting to set, the last handful of dirt was tossed over the grave.
“Say goodbye to your brother. He is a hero, a martyr!” his mother told her other sons. The parents tried to shepherd their stricken sons back to the vehicles, as calls to prayer rose from Najaf’s mosques. The father took one last look at the pile of dirt covering his son: “You are in God’s hands now,” he said, and walked away.