Baghdad, Iraq – Iraqis are growing increasingly fearful that the battle pitting government forces against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will soon reach the edges of the capital, and may lead to attacks on civilians.
“Government forces will not have mercy on our areas if they become a battle zone,” said Samer, a Sunni Muslim living in the western suburb of Yarmouk who preferred not to give his full name. “The Sunni neighbourhoods of Baghdad have a bad relationship with the security forces, who have often arrested young men on charges of terrorism. Everyone in my area thinks it will become a target for the army if ISIL comes to fight in Baghdad.”
The Iraqi government received a batch of Russian-made fighter planes on June 28 as soldiers backed by tanks and helicopter gunships began an offensive to retake the northern city of Tikrit from Sunni rebels led by ISIL. The group changed its name to the “Islamic Caliphate” on June 29.
“The fighting will start in mixed Sunni-Shia Muslim neighbourhoods between armed groups on both sides,” said Mustafa al-Bakhati, a journalist who lives in the mixed al-Ghazalia neighbourhood west of the capital. “People here are living on edge,” Bakhati said.
Most Sunni Muslims in Baghdad live in a crescent starting in the north and stretching around the western districts of the city to the south, an arc known locally as the “Baghdad Belt”. One mainly Sunni district, al-Adhamiya, which contains the shrine of an important Sunni scholar, Abu Hanifa al-Nu’man, sits sandwiched between two large Shia Muslim neighbourhoods, al-Kadhimiya and Sadr City.
The rural areas connected to the Baghdad Belt have been contested for many years, especially those in Anbar province, which is connected to the western suburbs of the capital. The area has seen constant violence since 2004, including roadside bombs and car bombings targeting military convoys.
Although in the recent round of violence Shia militias have not been implicated in sectarian attacks in the capital, many of the city’s Sunni residents fear that possible attacks by Sunni rebels in Baghdad might trigger a response from Shia militias.
But Wisam Adil, a sports teacher in the western Abu Ghraib district, blamed pro-government media outlets for inciting sectarian hatred.
“The government’s media outlets are constantly talking these days about sleeper cells of suicide bombers in Sunni areas. If those cells carried out attacks against Shia-dominated residential areas of Baghdad, the response could be ruthless,” Adil said.
The battle of Baghdad will begin if the militias manage to consolidate complete control over Anbar province, after taking control of Mosul and Tikrit.
Between 2006 and 2008, when sectarian violence reached a peak, armed groups on both sides carried out kidnappings and killings against each other and against civilians.
“The battle of Baghdad will begin if the militias manage to consolidate complete control over Anbar province, after taking control of Mosul and Tikrit,” said Bayan al-Bakri, a political analyst in Anbar. “The army is negotiating with militants in Anbar in order to ensure a safe withdrawal, and militants have announced their intention to head to Baghdad after they’ve finished dealing with this province.”
Bakri said that if anti-government militias try to attack Baghdad, they are likely to begin from Anbar. “Not only is Anbar, which includes the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, a symbol of armed resistance to the government, but it also leads into the capital both geographically and in sectarian terms. Most residents of the western suburbs of Baghdad have relatives in Anbar, and they consider those areas allies,” he told Al Jazeera.
But the battle for Baghdad has been staved off for now, according to Abdurazzaq al-Shamri, spokesman for the “Revolutionaries of Iraq”, an ad hoc tribal Sunni militia that formed in response to the army’s violent break-up of protest camps in Anbar province late last year.
“Baghdad is a fateful battle for us, but we’re not thinking about it for the moment because we fear for the Sunnis of the capital, who we consider hostages of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki,” al-Shamri told Al Jazeera.
Hisham al-Hashimi, a researcher on armed groups, agreed with al-Shamri, but pointed to another consideration that will be crucial for ISIL: “If it chooses to head for the capital, ISIL will be forced to fight Sunni tribes loyal to the government in the Baghdad Belt area,” he said.
“Some tribes have made a pact with representatives of the Iraqi security forces, agreeing not to support ISIL providing the government stops carrying out military operations in their areas, which have included the arrest of dozens of young men.”
After last week’s call to arms by a senior Shia religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, thousands of young Shia Muslim men have signed up to fight for the army and various government security forces in case the battle does reach the capital.
Pro-government fighters paraded in a Baghdad suburb on June 21: Thousands of fighters, including many wearing masks, marched in ranks through the streets of Sadr City, carrying small and medium-sized weapons and accompanied by vehicles displaying rocket launchers.
The parade, which was called for by prominent Shia leader and leader of the Mahdi army militia, Muqtada al-Sadr, was another sign of the increasing militarisation of Baghdad. But Sadr has been critical of Maliki and called for the formation of an emergency government that “must fulfil the legitimate demands of the moderate Sunnis and stop excluding them because they have been marginalised”.
People’s fears of a sectarian war breaking out have pushed them to apply for passports so they’re ready to escape at any moment.
Since Mosul fell to ISIL on June 10, hundreds of people have headed to passport offices and travel agencies to prepare their escape from the capital.
“Our office has been overwhelmed since June 10. There is a long queue at the door from the early hours of the morning, and it doesn’t break up until the office closes,” said Mohammad, who did not want to give his full name. An interior ministry clerk in a passport office in al-Karkh just west of the Tigris river, Mohammad helps sort applications from the majority-Sunni neighbourhoods in western Baghdad.
“People’s fears of a sectarian war breaking out have pushed them to apply for passports so they’re ready to escape at any moment,” he said, adding that while “issuing an Iraqi passport doesn’t cost more than about $40 through official channels, ‘mediators’ earn $700 at present for each passport they can source using their relationships”.
The price of plane tickets out of Baghdad has shot up over the past week, while even securing a seat is becoming nearly impossible. The price of a plane ticket from Baghdad to Erbil, the capital of the relatively-safe Kurdistan region in the north of Iraq, has gone from $100 to $200 on the black market, while the price of tickets to the Jordanian capital Amman has hit around $1000, up from $600 previously.
But as battle rages around Tikrit, just 140km northwest of Baghdad, many civilians are prepared to pay these inflated prices for a ticket to safety.