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Massacre jolts Iraq neighborhood

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq – The uniformed gunmen knocked politely on Hamid Shammari’s door.They took away his 20-year-old son, promising to let him go the next day. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since that dreadful Sunday that changed the Jihad neighborhood of western Baghdad, and perhaps the rest of Iraq.For several hours on the morning of July 9, Jihad became a place of unspeakable brutality, not so much for the wanton carnage that has become a daily part of Iraqi life, but by the cold-blooded nature of the killings. At least 36 and possibly as many as 55 Sunni Arab men were executed in what appears to have been a murderous revenge operation condoned or even overseen by law enforcement officials.The shooting began early, ferocious barrages that shook the neighborhood. Shiite youths acting in apparent collaboration with police officials cordoned off the area with barbed wire. Gunmen stood guard at checkpoints and prevented many from leaving. And later men in uniform went door-to-door holding lists of names.Witnesses say the Jihad massacre, which many Iraqis consider a disquieting watershed in the country’s descent into civil war between Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions, was carried out with clock-like precision as residents cowered in their homes making panicked cell phone calls to U.S. security forces, the Iraqi equivalent of 911 and, in one case, a commander in a Shiite militia.Iraq’s Interior Ministry vehemently denied that police took part in the slayings. One ranking official, speaking on condition he not be named, said police commandos rushed to Jihad that day and restored order as “violence broke out among civilians.” The U.S. military also defended its role, saying it responded as soon as Iraqi police said it was needed.That was between 2 1/2 and 4 hours after the operation started, residents say. That’s all it took.The situation deteriorated rapidly beginning about a month ago, residents say. Shammari, a 53-year-old Sunni Arab school teacher and engineer, recalled a Shiite cigarette vendor shot dead, followed quickly by a Sunni owner of a generator shop and a Shiite barber, gunned down along with several customers in his salon. A Sunni butcher was killed. His tribesmen retaliated by killing a number of suspected Shiite militiamen.”Still, it was semi-calm,” Shammari recalled. “You could move around the streets. It was possible to stay out until 8:30 p.m.”But the tit-for-tat killings continued to escalate. A car bomb struck a checkpoint of the Shiite-dominated police commando force July 2, killing five. Then, on July 7, a car bomb exploded near the Fakhri Shanshal mosque, during Friday prayers at that Sunni house of worship. Five people were killed, including two children, police and the U.S. military said.The next night another car bomb went off, this time in front of the Zahra hosseiniyeh, a Shiite house of worship, as evening prayers ended shortly before 9 p.m. The bombing killed 12 Iraqis and wounded 18 others, according to a U.S. military report.Soon afterward, the U.S. military said, a “Sunni mosque in area reported celebratory gunfire.”As early as 7 a.m. the next day, the counterattack had begun, residents said.Shammari left the house at 8:30 a.m. to line up for gasoline for his car. He was stopped immediately by young men who had set up a roadblock at the end of his street. They told him to go home. He assumed there had been an attack on police commandos, who often deputized the local teens to block off the streets. He noticed that they had placed barbed wire around the neighborhood.”They were neighborhood kids,” he said. “They were Shiites. I know the faces but I don’t know the names.”Another Jihad resident, who asked that his name not be used, said the checkpoints were set up at 500-yard intervals, with Shiite militiamen blocking off intersections and checking identification cards for given names and tribal affiliations that denote Sunnis.Back at home, Shammari heard gunfire. Some minutes later he again tried to leave the neighborhood, this time taking his two oldest daughters along.He made it to the local bus station, where he spotted a group of gunmen, in their early 20s, again men he recognized as locals. They pulled nine young men out of a bus. The gunmen lined them up and shot them dead.”I know the faces, but I don’t know the names,” he repeated. “They killed them in front of my eyes.”He rushed back home. “I was afraid they would kill me and my daughters,” he said.Families hunkered down inside their homes, listening with terror as gunfire erupted and stories of mayhem came pouring in by cellphone. The gunmen were breaking into homes and killing people, their neighbors.”They stopped people and checked IDs,” said Mais Haithem Sheikhly, a 22-year-old graduate student. “The Sunnis got executed and the Shiites were set free.”According to U.S. forces, helicopters were dispatched to the scene at 10:50 a.m., with ground forces arriving 20 minutes later. By then, Shammari and other witnesses said bitterly that the worst of the massacres already were over.A U.S. military official defended the American response.”Right now coalition forces have about 8,000 troops operating within the entire Baghdad area,” Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell told reporters a day after the incident. “We are not across the entire Baghdad city. We are at key locations worked out in agreement with the Iraqi security forces. We responded when asked by our counterparts.”Shammari, a longtime resident considered a paternal figure in the neighborhood, said he called the U.S.-led forces, the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, to no avail.He also called his contact in the chain of command of the Shiite militia called the Badr Brigade, which is linked to one of the most powerful Shiite political parties in Iraq. He told Shammari he had no influence over the people responsible for what was happening in his neighborhood.Panicked residents began calling local television stations, especially the Sunni-run Baghdad TV. They described gunmen backed by police officials systematically going from house to house. Many alleged the gunmen were loyalists of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose al-Mahdi militia has been accused of attacking Sunnis. Shiite militiamen have also been accused of infiltrating the security forces, using police vehicles and weaponry to carry out sectarian vendettas.By 3 p.m., police reported that the U.S. Army and Iraqi soldiers and police had entered the area and imposed a curfew until further notice.When the uniformed men arrived at Shammari’s house in the early afternoon of July 9, they said they wanted to search for weapons. He showed them his AK-47, allowed under current Iraqi law. They then asked to take away his elder son, Mostafa. He resisted, meekly. “They said they wanted to ask him a few questions and bring him home tomorrow,” Shammari said.Many fear he now lies somewhere in a ditch with a bullet hole to his head.”My son is at the mercy of God,” Shammari said.That night, gunmen began shooting at his house. As dawn broke, Shammari put his wife, three daughters and other son into his car and tried to leave. A police officer at a checkpoint, surrounded by young armed men, ordered him to return to his home.Instead, he left his car with neighbors and decided to find another escape route. The family walked 1 1/2 miles through a back road beyond the neighborhood, meeting neighbors along the way who told them of disasters that had been befallen longtime friends over the past day: kidnappings, murders.Finally, the family scurried into a taxi. Shammari dropped his daughters off at one cousin’s place, his wife at another and himself and his 19-year-old son at a third.Four days after the attack, at around 4 a.m., Shammari received a panicked call from his neighbor. Shammari’s house was on fire, he was told. He and the neighbor called the fire department, but said the police refused to let the firetrucks through.When he returned to the smoldering remains of his home the next day, his Qurans and paintings with religious verses had been carefully placed in plastic bags and laid out on the front yard. The generator gas tank that was normally in the courtyard was inside his living room, as if someone had doused the place with gasoline and dumped the container. His old manuscripts, history books, photo albums, hand-woven rugs, 20 years of detritus from a life of family and hard work were all burned.He still hasn’t worked up the strength to tell his wife about the house, he said. But it doesn’t matter: They’re never going back to Jihad.


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