BAGHDAD — Ten years ago, this was a park for children. The young boys of Adhamiya, a Sunni district in Baghdad, used to come here to play soccer.
Now, this bare patch of land on the bank of the Tigris river is a makeshift cemetery. A forest of tombstones grew during the darkest years of the civil war, between 2006 and 2008. At the time, the people in this neighborhood, surrounded by Shia houses, did not even dare set foot outside.
“All the people buried here are martyrs, victims of the militias,” sighs one of the cemetery’s employees. “There are about 8,000 of them.”
In the shade of a eucalyptus tree, Abdel Rassoul Mansour is waiting patiently for the women of his family to be done washing the body of his cousin. The 50 year-old taxi driver was shot dead the previous evening as he was coming out of a mosque in Dora, a Sunni district in southern Baghdad.
Located in the “Triangle of Death,” where the fights between U.S. troops and al-Qaeda militants were concentrated during the 2000s , the site is locked down by security forces and Shia militias, who think it is infested with sleeping cells of the Islamic State — the jihadist militant group previously known as ISIS. When asked about the murderer of his cousin, Abdel Rassoul gives a wry smile. “You know better than me,” he replies.
Baghdad is not Benghazi. Militiamen do not hurtle down the streets at breakneck speed in weapons-packed pickups. They know how to work discreetly, in unmarked cars and either ordinary clothes or uniforms. This make it difficult to distinguish, for instance, members of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s private army Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (“the League of the Righteous”) from official security forces.
The group, which pretty much has free rein over the area, is everywhere: at the gates of the Green Zone — a fortress within the fortress, where most government buildings are located — and at the cities most troubled checkpoints, in Dora, Hamadia and Saadiya, the former strongholds of the anti-American rebellion regularly beset by violence.
Its young fanatical Shia members, freed from all control except that of the prime minister, have become an obsessive fear for Sunnis. “We are more scared of the Shia militias than of ISIS jihadists,” admits an employee from a Western embassy, who wished not to be named.
The ordeal of Liqaa Salman, a small woman with her hair tied in a bun, says a lot about this silent terror. She welcomes us in her house’s kitchen, the smell of fried eggplants still lingering in the air. Since a group of men wearing balaclavas came to arrest her brother Nabil in the middle of the night, on May 2, she has not heard from him. Not a word. Every police and intelligence service officer she went to for help told her they knew nothing about that case.
Nabil, who owns a small supermarket, had already been arrested by the police two weeks before the elections of April 30, along with many people from their district of Zayouna. He was then released the day after the elections. “Who could have an interest in arresting him again, ten hours after he was released?” Liqaa asks, tormented by anguish. “I pray he’s not in the hands of Asa’ib.”
At the end of 2013, the marja’ (Shia Islam’s highest authority) had urged al-Maliki to put behind bars all the leaders of the militias that had committed abuses. Only Wathiq Al-Battat, the head of the Shia military group Mukhtar Army and a well-known anti-Sunni provocateur, had been arrested; the procedure was cancelled a few days later, officially because no charges could be brought against him.
At the same time, the Baghdad Governorate was working on a project to install security cameras all over the capital. “Several companies had been contacted,” explains a person close to the matter. “When the prime minister got wind of it, he ordered all security forces in the governorate to retreat. The following day, the project was suspended.” Al-Maliki’s militias are untouchable.