BAGHDAD — As Sunni militants rampaged across northern Iraq last week, executing Iraqi soldiers and government workers and threatening to demolish Shi’ism’s most sacred shrines, Iraq’s Shi’ites suffered mostly in silence, maintaining a patience urged on them by their religious leaders through months of deadly bombings.
On Tuesday, however, there were signs that their patience had run out.
The bodies of 44 Sunni prisoners were found in a government-controlled police station in Baqouba, about 40 miles north of Baghdad. They had all been shot Monday night in the head or chest. Then the remains of four young men who had been shot were found dumped Tuesday on a street in a Baghdad neighborhood controlled by Shi’ite militiamen.
By evening, it was Shi’ites who were the victims again, as a suicide bombing in a crowded market in Sadr City killed at least 14 people, local hospital officials said.
It is a darkly familiar cycle of violence, one that took hold in Iraq in 2006 and generated sectarian war over the next three years: Sunni extremists explode suicide bombs in Shi’ite neighborhoods, and Shi’ite militias retaliate by torturing and executing Sunnis. This time, though, without the presence of the US military, it has the potential to grow much worse.
That bloodletting was stopped in 2008 only after Iraqi tribal leaders in the pay of the US military rebelled against the Sunni extremists. With Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now encouraging what he says are hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites to rise to the defense of Iraq, and after years of sectarian government that has deeply alienated the tribes as well as the Sunnis, it is not clear that such a strategy, if tried, would meet with the same success.
“If there is no fast solution to what is happening, the situation will go back to daily attacks and will return to what happened back in 2006,” said Masroor Aswad, a member of the Independent Human Rights Commission in Baghdad. He said the minority Sunnis were terrified that they would be blamed for any violence against Shi’ites, leaving them vulnerable to brutal retaliatory attacks from the Shi’ite militias.
In Baqouba, the killings took place after an assault in which militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria overran several neighborhoods, security officials said. A police source said the Sunni militants attacked the police station where the men, suspected of ties to the insurgents, were being held for questioning.
“Those people were detainees who were arrested in accordance with Article 4 terrorism offenses,” he said, referring to Iraqi antiterrorism legislation that gives security forces extraordinary arrest powers. “They were killed inside the jail by the policemen before they withdrew from the station last night.”
Brigadier General Jameel Kamal al-Shimmari, the police commander in Baqouba, said that officers had repulsed the militants from the city after a three-hour gun battle in the same area as the police station where the prisoners were killed.
“Everything in the city is now under control, and the groups of armed men are not seen in the city,” Shimmari said Tuesday.
Morgue officials in Baqouba said that two police officers had been killed in the fighting.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria claimed in a Twitter post that the prisoners had been executed by the police.
An Iraqi military spokesman, General Qassim Atta, blamed the deaths in Baqouba on the militants, saying the prisoners died when the station was struck with hand grenades and mortars. However, a source at the morgue in Baqouba said that many of the victims had been shot to death at close range. Like many of the official sources in Iraq, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
Throughout Baghdad, residents expressed fears that the violence was finding its way back into their neighborhoods. “You see gunmen in the street, you don’t know who is who,” said Ahmad al-Kharabai, who has a small hardware store in Al-Adil, a mixed neighborhood in southern Baghdad where Sunnis live mainly on one side of the main road and Shi’ites live mainly on the other.
“You don’t know who is with you, and who’s against you,” he said.
Many militiamen have come into the neighborhood, and although they do not visibly carry guns, no one doubts they have them. Still, Kharabai said he was hopeful that Iraq would not devolve into a cycle of revenge killings. “I think Iraqis know the mistake they made in 2006 and will not repeat it,” he said.
Mohammed al-Gailani, who owns a grocery shop in the largely Sunni neighborhood of Dora, was more pessimistic.
“People are afraid, we are afraid of the militiamen around; I think things will go as badly as they did before,” he said, adding that he was desperate to leave with his family for Turkey but that flights were booked for weeks. A travel agent, he said, declined to estimate how long it would take to get his family on a plane.