Thursday, 25 June 2009

the Fragile situation

Living in the buffer zone or what you may call no man’s land between Baghdad’s Sunni -dominated Adhamiyah district and the Sadr City area dominated by the Mahdi Army, which is a Shia militia, I know how bad tensions between the two sides can get. I remember a couple of years ago when sectarian fighting – one might even call it civil war - was at its peak.

At the time, mortars and Russian-made Grad artillery missiles flew back and forth between the two areas in north Baghdad. Whenever there was a bombing in Sadr city, the Mahdi Army would retaliate, lobbing mortars into Adhamiyah. The tit-for-tat assaults eventually led to construction of massive concrete blast walls to separate the two districts and the two sides.

For many Baghdad residents, a string of recent bombings in the city’s neighborhoods has resurrected memories of those bad old days. And those attacks are putting people on edge – again.

The other night, following a major bombing in a busy Sadr City market that killed more than 60 people and injured 120 others, I went to dinner at an open-air café in Adhamiyah near the Grand Mosque of Abu Hanifa. It was a couple of hours before the midnight curfew. Unlike other nights, when procedures at the checkpoints leading to Adhamiyah tend to be relaxed by this late hour, Iraqi Army soldiers were asking almost every driver to step out of his car and open the trunk for checking.

Just ahead of me, some men in a white 1988 Chevrolet Celebrity started throwing beer cans out windows and pouring out glasses of Scotch, as they got closer to the checkpoint. They clearly feared they might get in trouble for drinking.

Later, as we sat at the café having our dinner, we noticed an Iraqi soldier with a nickel-coated AK47, standing nearby, nervous but vigilant. “Whose GMC is this?” he shouted, pointing to a large, shiny Suburban parked at the curb a couple meters from us. “We’ll be done in a minute,” a customer sitting at a table with some friends yelled back. “Come and have dinner with us.” The soldier was not amused. “You said the you will only pick up some sandwiches,” he barked. “Move it!”

Meanwhile, Iraqi military Humvees drove up and down Adhamiya’s main street. You could tell they were on high alert in the wake of the recent bombings, including one in the Karada district as well as the Sadr City incident. Also, the alert level has been raised ahead of the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraqi cities, which comes at the end of this month.

Later, as we were leaving Adhamiya, just about a half-hour ahead of curfew, authorities at the checkpoint were still requiring people to leave their cars for a quick check. All the activity was a reminder of how fragile the situation in Baghdad, and Iraq, remains - and how quickly things can go downhill.