Dozens die as sectarian attacks escalate in Iraq

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The Independent Online

Iraq moved further towards all out sectarian civil war yesterday after Shia gunmen attacked a Sunni district in Baghdad, killing at least 42 people. Many were dragged from their cars at two fake police checkpoints and shot dead.

Masked Shia militiamen, probably from the Mehdi Army, stormed into the Sunni district of Jihad in west Baghdad in revenge for a bomb attack on a Shia mosque. Four carloads of gunmen arrived at 10am and started stopping vehicles. Those with identity cards showing they had Sunni names were shot. Bodies were dumped throughout the area.

Saad Jawad Kadhim al-Azzawi, the Shia owner of a supermarket, said he saw heavily armed men drag four people out of a car, blindfold them and make them stand by while they forced five other men out of a minivan. "After 10 minutes," he said, "the gunmen took the nine people to a place a few metres away and opened fire on them."

The slaughter of people with the "wrong" identity cards in the heart of the Iraqi capital has not happened on this scale before, and marks a serious escalation in sectarian hatred. Tit-for-tat mass killings are now commonplace. In an act of retaliation for the massacre of Sunnis in Jihad district, two car bombs exploded near a Shia mosque in the evening, killing 17 people and wounding 45.

Earlier in the day, Iraqi troops, backed by US forces, attacked the Shia stronghold of Qadamiya, killing nine people, wounding 30 and arresting seven.

Three Americans and one Iraqi government soldier were wounded. The US troops appear to have been looking for a Mehdi Army commander called Abu Diraa, accused of torturing and killing Sunnis. Local people said all those arrested were civilians, including a school teacher.

A savage sectarian conflict is now raging in Baghdad and nearby provinces in central Baghdad. Both the Shia and Sunni communities are turning districts in which they are a majority into bastions from which the minority is expelled.

Districts that have not been attacked fear that they may be stormed. After the Shia gunmen stormed Jihad yesterday, the Mehdi Army sealed off Shula, a mainly Shia neighbourhood, fearing that there would be a retaliatory attack.

The inability of the government to stop sectarian warfare has become ever more evident in the past few days. The US-Iraqi government attack into Qadamiyah, which caused heavy damage to buildings, was seen by many Shias as the US leaning towards the Sunnis.

The US has always been opposed to Iraq becoming a Shia-dominated state, led by religious parties and closely allied to Iran. One effect of the increasing sectarian violence has been to reduce US casualties, with only nine American soldiers killed this month - which is less than half the usual rate.

Baghdad is becoming more like Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, with people being routinely slaughtered because of their identity card showing their name and place of birth. Many mixed districts are becoming either Sunni or Shia. Even a hardcore Sunni district such as Amariya in west Baghdad was once 30 per cent Shia.

Mehdi Army leaders denied that they were responsible for the killings. The nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, to whom the Mehdi Army is nominally loyal, said: "I urge all government and popular forces to exercise restraint and take responsibility in front of God first, and society generally." Most of the political parties have their own militias. Meanwhile, five American soldiers have been charged with rape and multiple murder in a case which has infuriated Iraqis.

According to documents obtained by Reuters news agency, the girl who was raped, Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi, was only 14 years old, going by her identity card. US officials had claimed she was 20.

Private Steven Green has been charged with a rape and four murders, along with four other soldiers. American witnesses said the men had gone to a house, killed the parents and a six-year-old child before carrying out the rape. They then killed the girl, burned the bodies and the house.