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[casi] Baghdad's simmering religious tensions

Date: Sunday, 26 October, 2003

Baghdad's simmering religious tensions

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online correspondent in Baghdad

Two corpses lie in cold storage at the Baghdad
children's hospital - still known locally by its old
name, Saddam Hospital.

The bodies have been cleaned up now - bound up in the
traditional Islamic fashion and placed in wooden boxes
for their funeral on Monday.

A third body - of a teenage boy - has already been
taken for burial west of Baghdad.

"We've seen many similar cases in this area," says
Saddam hospital doctor Muhammad Dahham.

"But they've been small things, injuries, burning of
cars. It has never reached the level of murder before
this morning."

Dr Dahham is referring to the simmering inter-sect
tensions in the teeming slums of western Baghdad,
which in the last week appear to have taken a bloody
new turn.

Killers waiting

The two bodies in the freezer belong to Sheikh Ahmed
Khudeir and his brother Walid Khudeir, who were killed
walking back home in the Washash neighbourhood early
on Sunday morning after dawn prayers.

The dead teenager - Taisir Falih - used to act as eyes
for the 40-year-old sheikh, who was blind. Brother
Walid was also disabled.

Local resident Majid Ahmed says he saw the killers at
a T-junction near his house as he went before dawn to
the Washash mosque to pray.

They were still sitting there, in a small black car,
as he returned from the mosque at about 0530.

The sheikh's habit was to remain at the mosque for a
few minutes after prayers and proceed slowly home with
Taisir along an unpaved, potholed road with the
typical open sewer running down the middle as in so
many poor Baghdad neighbourhoods.

"About 15 minutes after I got home I heard the
gunfire," Mr Ahmed told the BBC. "I was scared and did
not look out until the killers had gone and the three
bodies were lying on the ground."

Brutal killing

The deaths have shocked the poverty-stricken Washash
slum, but the manner of their killing has added to
their anguish.

"I have not seen the bodies myself," Dr Dahham told
the BBC. "But my colleague said that each one had many
bullets in it."

Fifteen Kalashnikov rounds for the sheikh, 13 for his
brother and nine for the young boy, according to
people in Washash who had gone with the bodies to
Saddam hospital.

"The gunmen killed them first and then emptied the
magazines into the dead bodies," said one resident.

As far as the mosque faithful are concerned, there is
only one explanation for what happened on Sunday

Ahmed Khudeir was a Sunni sheikh at a Sunni mosque and
he was killed by members of the local Shia militia,
they believe.

The militia they have in mind - the Badr brigades -
belongs to a leading Shia political party which has a
seat on the US-appointed Governing Council.

Empty office

It was impossible to get the other side of the story
in Washash because the local branch of the party in
question - the Supreme Council for the Islamic
Revolution in Iraq - had hastily abandoned their
offices earlier in the day.

Sunni and Shia alike in Washash have taken that as
tantamount to an admission of guilt for the morning's
killings - although it may just be common sense to
avoid a possible Sunni backlash.

Doubtless Shias have also been killed by Sunnis across
Iraq's religious divide - never more so than during
Saddam Hussein's rule - but not, according to the
medical officials, in this kind of brutal internecine
struggle played out in the backstreets of Baghdad.

As for the men of the Washash mosque, they vowed they
wouldn't be seeking to avenge their sheikh.

"We are Muslims and so we're against spilling one drop
of blood," says Abdul Hamid Rashid. "Revenge is for
God Almighty alone."

Growing trend

The trail that led to Washash is worth mentioning,
because Sunday morning's killing has gone unreported
by the international or even the local media.

In fact it appears to be part of a worrying trend that
has also gone unnoticed.

Last week doctors at Yarmouk hospital had told me they
had just treated victims of a drive-by shooting with
sectarian overtones. At least four people had been
shot dead after evening prayers at the Hassanein
Mosque in Amriya, and seven injured.

I had not seen a single other report to confirm this
incident so I decided to go to the mosque -
purportedly a Wahhabi institution in a strongly Sunni
area - to check out the story.

In fact, Hassanein official Sheikh Adnan denied the
killings had anything to do with the mosque itself,
saying the victims were former regime intelligence men
who happened to pray there - though they did allege
Shia militias were behind the attack.

However, the sheikh told us that Amriya was not the
only incident; he told us of the Washash shooting that
morning and another shooting in another western
Baghdad suburb a few days earlier.

Nightmare scenario

If the talk at Washash was of the certainty of God's
revenge - at Hassanein there was a sharp debate on
what the response should be.

One hothead was berating the community's inactivity,
when the Sunni faithful "sit idly while attacks go

But Sheikh Adnan overruled him saying that that path
leads to much greater suffering for both Shia and
Sunni communities.

However there is little love lost between the sheikh
and the Shia, and especially the powerful Sciri

"When we went to give our condolences for the death of
Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, they said 'Look,
here come the Jewish Wahhabis'," he recalls.

It could be that the May attack on Ayatollah al-Hakim,
which killed at least 80 people in the Shia holy city
of Najaf and has still not been solved, was the
trigger for all this violence.

The question is, are the ingredients in place to
spiral in full-scale Sunni-Shia conflict?

This nightmare scenario has already become a realistic
possibility in parts of Shia-dominated southern Iraq.

But if the conflict develops further in the mixed
suburbs of Baghdad, Washington's plans to put Iraq
back on the road to recovery may be heading for their
biggest setback yet.

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