A civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims is spreading rapidly through central Iraq, with each community seeking revenge for the latest massacre. Yesterday a suicide bomber driving a van packed with explosives blew himself up outside the golden-domed mosque in Kufa, killing at least 59 and injuring more than 130 Shia.
In the past 10 days, while the world has been absorbed by the war in Lebanon, sectarian massacres have started to take place on an almost daily basis, leading observers to fear a level of killing approaching that of Rwanda immediately before the genocide of 1994. On a single spot on the west bank of the Tigris river in north Baghdad, between 10 and 12 bodies have been drifting ashore every day.
In Kufa, a city on the Euphrates 90 miles south of Baghdad, the suicide bomber drove his vehicle into a dusty square 100 yards from a Shia shrine at 7.30am. He knew that poor day-labourers gathered there looking for work. He reportedly said: "I need labourers" and they climbed into his van, which exploded a few moments later, killing them and other workers near by. "Four of my cousins were killed," said Nasir Feisal, who survived the blast. "They were standing beside the van. Their bodies were scattered far apart by the blast."
The severe escalation in sectarian killings started nine days ago when black-clad Shia militiamen sealed off the largely Sunni al-Jihad district in west Baghdad and slaughtered every Sunni they identified, killing more than 40 of them after glancing at their identity cards. Since then there has been a tit-for-tat massacre almost every day.
On Monday, gunmen - almost certainly Sunni - first attacked Shia mourners at a funeral near Mahmoudiya, a market town 20 miles south of Baghdad. They then shot another 50 people in the local market.
The failure of the newly formed government of Nouri al-Maliki to stop the mass killings has rapidly discredited it. The Shia and Sunni militias - in the latter case the insurgents fighting the Americans - are becoming stronger as people look to them for protection. After the explosion in Kufa angry crowds hurled stones at the police demanding that the militiamen of the Mehdi Army, followers of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, take over security in the city. Others chanted at the police - who began to fire in the air to disperse them - "you are traitors!" and accused them of being "American agents".
In much of Baghdad the militias have taken over and are killing or driving out the minority community. It has become very easy to be killed anywhere in central Iraq - where a third of the 27 million population lives - through belonging to the wrong sect. Many people carry two sets of identity papers, one forged at a cost of about $60 (£30), so they can claim to be a Sunni at Sunni checkpoints and Shia at Shia checkpoints.
Even this may not be enough to ensure survival. Aware of the number of forged identity papers being used, Mehdi Army checkpoints in the largely Shia Shu'ala district in west Baghdad have started to ask drivers questions about Shia theology which a Sunni would be unable to answer. One man, a Shia, passed the test but was still executed - because he was driving a car with number plates from Anbar, a wholly Sunni province.
While the White House and Downing Street still refuse to use the phrase "civil war", Iraqis in the centre of the country have no doubt what is happening. Baghdad's mortuary alone received 1,595 bodies in June, and it has got worse since then.
Many people are fleeing. One day early this month, at the al-Salhai bus station in central Baghdad, there were 23 buses, each carrying 49 people, and 30 four-wheel drive vehicles departing for Syria with refugees. Access to Jordan has become more difficult, with many Iraqis turned back at the border.
All buses on routes to these countries have Sunni drivers nowadays, after five Shia drivers were killed as "spies" while driving through the Sunni heartlands of western Iraq on the way to Jordan and Syria.Reuse content