Supporters of Bush administration policy in Iraq have claimed that “the surge” in U.S. forces is working, that violence has decreased. Opponents have argued that what is really going on is ethnic cleansing. The following comes to me from the International War and Peace Report:
DRIVEN TO EXTREMES
Sectarian tensions are running so high that Baghdadis risk their lives getting their cars fixed.
By an IWPR reporter in Baghdad
When Ali Sadiq’s car engine started acting up, he knew he was in trouble. Engine problems are bad enough under normal circumstances, but in Baghdad Ali faced an additional hurdle: he couldn’t fix his Mercedes because he is a Shia.
Mechanics who repair German and American vehicles are located in a predominantly Sunni area of the capital called Sheikh Omar. Third Street in Sheikh Omar is where most of them are based – but the area is such a Sunni militant hotbed that Shia dare not go anywhere near it.
Sadiq planned to have a Sunni friend drive it there to have it seen to.
“No other mechanics can fix the problem,” said 37-year-old Sadiq, closing the hood of his car. “But the specialists are in the Sheikh Omar area, and I’m too afraid to go there.”
Sunni insurgents have expelled non-Sunni from Sheikh Omar – once a mixed Sunni, Shia, Faili Kurd and Armenian area in the heart of Baghdad.
“Insurgents even seek out Sunni mechanics that repair cars for Iraqi officials,” said Mohammed Abdulqadir, a 43-year-old Sunni mechanic who specialises in Mercedes.
While insurgents wage a sectarian terror campaign in the neighbourhood, criminal gangs also intimidate and steal from mechanics and car owners.
Abdulqadir complains that his business had suffered because militants in the area were scaring off his customers. He says they target Mercedes owners, believing they are government officials because of their expensive cars.
Sectarianism has also seeped into al-Baya’, an industrial area dominated by Shia. The suburb is home to mechanics who specialise in Korean cars such as Opels, one of the most affordable and popular cars in Iraq.
Al-Baya’ was controlled by Sunni insurgents for a while but now Shia militias are in control. Sunnis who own Korean cars won?t risk entering the area.
Hatred of Sunni runs deep here, even among those who worked with them daily.
Mohammad Khalid, a 35 year-old Shia, lost three of his brothers to Sunni assassins at a time when they ruled the neighbourhood. But after the bombing of the Shia Samarra shrine in February 2006, the Shia of al-Baya’ rose up and turfed out the Sunni insurgents.
“The Samara bombing was a saviour for us, the Shia,” said Khalid in his repair shop. “The insurgents back then were powerful, and no one was
confronting them. They were controlling this area, and the [local] Sunni were supporting them. Now they have to pay the price.”
The raging sectarianism is ruining mechanics and many other small businesses by scaring off a substantial proportion of their custom[ers].
Some have given up and joined the exodus of millions of Iraqis to Jordan and Syria. Ziad Sa’d, a 40-year-old Sunni, said that his mechanic who had an auto repair shop in Sheikh Omar had relocated to Damascus.
“I know many Iraqi [mechanics] who have moved to Syria,” he said, “They fled the hell of Iraq.”
Abdullah al-Lami, spokesman for the ministry of labour, described the situation as a “disaster”.
“The security situation has severely affected skilled workers in Baghdad. Many of them have been forced to close down their businesses and leave the area,” he said.
Al-Lami said that his ministry doesn’t have figures of how many businesses have closed down and how many mechanics have been killed or forced to leave their business.
Car owners, meanwhile, regret not being able to have their motors serviced by their old mechanics. Aqeel Muhssin, 29, a Shia, said his Sunni mechanic, who was not [in any] event religious, was killed by Shia militias. “He didn’t even know how to pray,” he said.