In a quiet town, tensions ignited 2-day massacre

U.S., Iraqi security forces stood back as Shiites turned on Sunnis, killing dozens

November 09, 2006|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BALAD, Iraq -- There were no heroes here.

When dozens of people were murdered in this once-peaceful Shiite market city over two days in October, no one stepped in to stop the killing. Not U.S. forces, whose stated purposes in Iraq include preventing all-out civil war. Not the Iraqi security forces, who mostly turned a blind eye to the massacre. Not the people of Balad, who allowed decades of fear and hatred to overwhelm their better instincts.

Perhaps nothing could be done. Perhaps Iraq's Shiite-Sunni feuds have become so heated that not even 140,000 U.S. soldiers can stop the country's brutal civil war.

Balad, a city of 120,000 up the Tigris River north of Baghdad, lies less than 15 miles from Logistics Support Area Anaconda, the largest U.S. military base in Iraq. A small forward operating base, Camp Paliwoda, lies just outside the city.

But U.S. troops stuck by the policy of letting Iraqis take the lead and gave the Shiite-dominated police force latitude as townspeople went on a murderous rampage.

"We didn't think it would happen on this scale," said Capt. Mark T. Jenner, intelligence officer of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, which was in the process of handing over the area to another U.S. unit when the slayings occurred.

Perhaps the most chilling thing about the massacre in Balad was that it was not the work of outside death squads. According to Iraqis and U.S. intelligence officials, it appears to have been the work of Shiite residents who turned on their Sunni neighbors.

"The ordinary people, some of them took their guns and did this thing," said Amira Baldawi, a Shiite member of parliament who is from Balad. "The city is under pressure all the time. There is a reaction to every action."

The killings began on a Friday afternoon, normally the day of rest in Muslim countries.

Ajeel Mujamaie, 30, a Sunni high school teacher of English and Arabic, was rushing his pregnant wife, Fadhilla, to the hospital.

He ran into a security guard he knew, a man named Abbas, a relative by marriage.

"He told me I have to leave," Mujamaie said. "He told me they will kill me."

Gunmen swarmed the hospital, aided by some of the employees.

"They were from Balad," Mujamaie said of the employees who guided the gunmen. "They were saying: `Take this guy. Don't take this guy.'"

As Fadhilla writhed in pain, Abbas slipped the couple into their car and headed for a midwife outside the city center.

Across Balad, other Sunnis had begun to flee.

For decades, this farming region has been a caldron of mistrust between the Shiite Muslim tribes living in town and the Sunni Arab tribes spread out in the surrounding farmlands.

In the 1970s, the city became a stronghold of Shiite activists of the outlawed Islamic Dawa Party, which had strong ties to neighboring Iran. After the Iran-Iraq war erupted in 1980, President Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party supporters cracked down, executing Dawa members, uprooting orchards and seizing the property of well-to-do Shiites to hand over to Sunnis.

The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 upended the power dynamics.

Shiites began asserting their muscle. In 2004, a group loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took over a Sunni mosque in downtown Balad, declaring it their own.

In February, when a bomb severely damaged the Shiite shrine of the Golden Dome in nearby Samarra, U.S. soldiers said they had to seal off Balad to prevent Shiites from heading there to exact revenge.

In recent months, Sunnis began complaining that Shiite thugs, allegedly with ties to the al-Sadr organization, were manning checkpoints. Shiites, too, warned of a coming breaking point. In September, Baldawi sent a bundle of desperate letters from her constituents to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"People complained that the situation is not at all secure," she said. "They wanted more security forces to protect the area."

Nevertheless, on Sept. 13, U.S. forces formally handed over control of the area to the Iraqis.

The episodic killings continued.

When the retaliations against Sunnis began Friday afternoon, killer and victim probably knew each other.

The killings continued Saturday. For hours, mobs killed any Sunni men they encountered. Gunmen also went to car auctions and seized Sunnis as well as their cars, killing them and burning the vehicles.

The U.S. military monitored events from its base just outside Balad.

"We could tell the sectarian tension was flaring up," said Capt. Matthew Thomas, the incoming intelligence officer of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment. "We got reports of Shiite retaliation against Sunnis."

By Friday afternoon, U.S. forces dispatched a platoon-sized unit into town. The soldiers offered to help the local Iraqi forces keep order. Iraqi officers declined, and the Americans left.

On Saturday, U.S. forces told Iraqis to establish checkpoints around the city and retrieve bodies. At 5 p.m., civic officials declared a 48-hour curfew for Balad and Dhuluiya, with no traffic allowed in or out of either town.

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