On eve of key national elections, Baghdad revisits horrors of worst sectarian violence

Associated Press + More

By HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — Blast barrier walls topped with barbed wire snake across the Iraqi capital, encircling government buildings like a fortress and enshrining the separation of neighborhoods increasingly divided by religious sect. Soldiers and policemen brandishing assault rifles and machine guns man checkpoints, partially hidden behind sandbags or staring down from the roofs of Humvees.

As parliamentary elections are held this week more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Baghdad is once again a city gripped by fear and scarred by violence. Many of the city's 7 million residents avoid roads hit by bombings, fearing a deadly repeat. Most shops now close shortly after sunset, and an overnight curfew that begins at midnight remains in force.

On Monday, suspected Sunni militants struck checkpoints outside polling stations across Baghdad and much of the country, as army and police personnel voted two days before the rest of Iraq's 22 million registered voters cast their ballots on Wednesday. At least 21 people were killed in the suicide bombings and other attacks.

Despite a surge in violence engulfing the country over the past year, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's election coalition is expected to win and propel him to a third, four-year term in office. Al-Maliki's campaign has cast him as a strong statesman who has kept the country together through tough times, a view rejected by many Sunnis who see him as a sectarian politician determined to marginalize their once-dominant sect.

An al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, is challenging the authority of the Shiite-led government, waging a campaign of terror on ordinary Shiites in Baghdad and elsewhere. The Sunni militants also control parts of the vast Anbar province west of Baghdad and maintain a heavy presence in the north and northeast of the country. Their campaign is fueled by the frustration felt by many Sunni Arabs that they are now being denied government jobs slotted for less qualified Shiites.

Baghdad's division along sectarian lines, a legacy of the last decade's Sunni-Shiite bloodletting, is now deeply enshrined and, to hardliners on both sides, is how things should be. Most of the hundreds of thousands of mostly Sunni Baghdadis who fled the capital have yet to come back, finding relative peace abroad in Arab cities like Amman, Dubai and Beirut.

A flood of migrants from the impoverished and mainly Shiite south of the country has altered Baghdad's demographics. Many Sunnis now complain that what was once a diverse city with entrenched values of religious tolerance is now predominantly Shiite. Mixed neighborhoods are disappearing, and where they do still exist, minority residents complain of harassment and intimidation. Interfaith marriages are now rare among poor Shiites and Sunnis.

Some of the campaign posters for Wednesday's parliamentary election are promising better days for the city — jobs, security and an end to graft. But many residents don't believe such promises, instead distrusting politicians as corrupt or inept.

"It is only now that it is election season that we hear from politicians," said Zeid Ibrahim Ahmed, a 47-year-old Sunni barber from Baghdad's mostly Sunni Azamiyah neighborhood. "But for four years they failed to do anything useful. The only change we might see in Iraq after the election is that we will move from bad to worse."

Ahmed said he keeps his three children at home and away from school on days when bombs go off. When they do go, he escorts them.

"Security is worsening every day in this city," he said.

Some Shiites share the Sunnis' frustration over deteriorating security and the failure of al-Maliki's government to improve their lives despite the country's vast oil wealth. But many also see him as a strong leader who can protect and perpetuate Shiite domination.