May 4, 2009

In Baghdad, Iraqis fear return of sectarian bloodshed

BAGHDAD — Jassim Hussein follows the news. He's well aware that violence in his country is creeping up again, and he's worried.

Not that you'd know it judging by the way he spent Saturday night: out with his wife celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary at a popular open-air creamery and cafe in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, their three children in tow.

"Yes, we're concerned. We feel it inside," said Hussein, a government administrator. "But that doesn't mean life stops."

Hussein and his family were far from the only ones out Saturday night. In fact, Hassan's Creamery was packed with couples holding hands, with girlfriends gossiping and laughing, with children chasing each other across the cafe's brightly lit courtyard.

"I think people just want to enjoy the security while they can," Hussein said. "A year ago we couldn't do this. Maybe soon it will be that way again."

Over the past two months, Iraq has witnessed a sharp increase in deadly bombings, and there is widespread worry that last year's security gains may be unraveling.

So far, fears of renewed violence don't appear to be changing habits here. Even at night, restaurants, cafes and parks are still busy, a far cry from 2007, when most ventured out only for essential reasons.

Still, Iraqis say they're nervous about the upswing in violence and what it may mean. They say they're worried things will get worse, concerned that Iraq's security forces aren't ready to stand on their own, and afraid that the country's ethnic, sectarian and political factions are still far from reconciliation.

Iraqis are acutely aware that large-scale bombings aimed at civilians, and especially at Shiite Muslims, are on the rise. Many said last month's explosions are reminiscent of the violence of early 2006 that sparked Iraq's sectarian war.

"I think the security is starting to go backwards," said Hussein Falih, a 37-year-old police officer. "The situation on the streets feels different, even if we are not behaving different. We are on alert."

Falih's fears are far from unfounded. By several measures, April was the bloodiest month Iraq has seen this year.

In Baghdad alone, more than 200 people died in attacks last month, compared with 99 in March and 46 in February, according to a McClatchy count.

The last time McClatchy recorded more than 200 civilian deaths in one month in the capital was more than a year ago, in March 2008.

At least 520 people were injured in attacks in Baghdad in April, the most since November.

Eighteen U.S. troops died across Iraq last month, the highest toll in seven months.

Most of April's bombings targeted large crowds of Shiites. On April 6 a series of seven explosions killed at least 32 people in Baghdad. Back-to-back bombings the following two days killed at least 15 in the mostly Shiite district of Kadhemiyah. More than 50 died in a suicide attack targeting Shiite pilgrims in Diyala province April 23. Roughly the same number were killed April 29 in three explosions in the east Baghdad Shiite slum of Sadr City.

Publicly, U.S. and Iraqi officials have said the renewed violence is not an indication that recent security gains are reversing.

Maj. Gen. David Perkins, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters here this week that American commanders don't see cause for alarm primarily because recent attacks have not yet triggered revenge killings, the return of Shiite militias or sectarian-motivated violence.

Perkins said the U.S. military believes al Qaida in Iraq is to blame for most of April's bombings. He said extremists are attempting to incite sweeping Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence by carrying out high-profile attacks that target Shiite civilians. So far the military hasn't seen signs that al Qaida's plan is working, Perkins said.

"They may be accomplishing their task, which is to kill a lot of innocent civilians," he said. "But they are not accomplishing their purpose, which is to generate ethno-sectarian violence ... and chaos."

For the most part, Iraqis agree there is little evidence so far that suggests widespread sectarian killing will return. But many said they believe things could quickly change. And while most said they're confident violence will never get as bad as it was 18 months ago, many said they expect attacks to increase as the U.S. begins drawing down in Iraq.

"I'm worried," said Sadir Sami, who is 32 and looking for work. "A month ago, I felt safe leaving my house in the morning. But now I think twice about where I'm going. I still go, but I am more conscious of things around me."

Sami said his cousin was among those killed in an explosion in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood on April 23.

"That's what changed it for me," he said. "I think this will bring the militias back."

Khadija Ahmed, a 25-year-old newlywed, said she's afraid Iraq's security forces won't be able to stand on their own when the U.S. is no longer supporting them.

"They need the help still," she said. "They won't be able to control things like the Americans."

Her husband, Ali, agreed. "I feel like things might explode again," he said. "In general, things are still OK. But we're preparing for that to change now."

Ahmed Muhsin, a 23-year-old waiter at Hassan's, said he's also concerned about what will happen as the U.S. role in Iraq diminishes.

"For a long time we didn't want (the Americans)," he said. "But now we're worried about how it will be when they go."

Hussein Ali Shukar, who sells frozen juice at a popular park along the Tigris River in Baghdad, said he's seen no drop-off in business since attacks have increased.

"I think it will have to get worse for people to really be afraid," he said. "Even if we are worried, we are used to explosions. I still go in the evenings to Adhamiyah to eat outside and smoke sheesha."

Ayas Abu Ahmed, a 41-year-old clothing merchant, attributed the recent violence to political factions that lost in provincial elections held here in January.

"They don't like the results, and they don't want to leave the power with the people who have it now," he said. "So they don't want the situation to be stable."

Though he's concerned about attacks, Ahmed said he isn't living his life any differently.

"This is still very good compared to what we had before," he said. "I'm not going to hide in my house. I'm going to live."

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