your connection to The Boston Globe

The bodies pile up as Baghdad asks, 'Are you Sunni or Shi'ite?'

Patrick McDonnell, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times who covered the first two years of the Iraq war, offers impressions of the country after a year long absence.

BAGHDAD -- In one photo, he appears to be in his mid-20s, bespectacled, slightly bearded, and somehow his smile conveys a sense of prosperity to come. Perhaps he is set to marry, enroll in graduate school, or launch a business -- all of these flights of ambition seem possible.

In the next few images he is encased in plastic: His face is frozen in a ghoulish grimace. Blackened lesions blemish his neck.

"Drill holes," says Colonel Khaled Rasheed, an Iraqi Army commander who is displaying the set of photographs to an American reporter.

He preserves the snapshots in a drawer, the image of the young man brimming with expectations always on top. There is no name, no identification, just a series of photos that documents the transformation of some mother's son into a disfigured body on a bloody table in a morgue.

"Please, please, I must show these photographs to President Bush," Rasheed pleads in desperation, as we sit in a bombed-out palace along the Tigris, once the elegant domain of Saddam Hussein's wife, now the command center for an Iraqi Army battalion. "President Bush must know what is happening in Baghdad!"

For a reporter who covered the first two years of the Iraq war and returned after a yearlong absence, it feels like this ancient byway of Islamic learning and foreign invaders has gone over to the dark side. A year ago, car bombs, ambushes, daily gun battles, and chronic lack of electricity and gasoline were sapping the city. But not this: the wanton execution of individuals because of sect -- a phenomenon so commonplace that it has earned the military shorthand EJK, for extrajudicial killing.

Every day the corpses pile up in the capital like discarded furniture -- at curbside, in lots, waterways, and sewer lines; every day the executioners return. A city in which it was long taboo to ask "Are you Sunni or Shi'ite?" has abruptly become defined by these very characteristics.

Once-harmonious neighborhoods with mixed populations have become killing grounds. Residents of one sect or the other must clear out or face the whim of fanatics with power drills.

People are here one day, gone the next. Those who do go out often venture no farther than familiar streets. In the sinister evenings, when death squads roam, people block off their lanes to ward off the killers.

Many residents remain in their homes -- paralyzed .

"My children are imprisoned at home," says a cook, Daniel, a Christian whom I knew from better times, now planning to join the exodus from Iraq. "They are nervous and sad all the time. Baghdad is a big prison, and their home is a small one."

But homes offer only an illusion of safety. Recently, insurgents rented apartments in mostly Shi'ite east Baghdad, filled the flats with explosives, and blew them up after Friday prayers. Dozens perished.

Even gathering the bodies of loved ones is fraught with hazards. A Shi'ite Muslim religious party controls the main morgue near downtown; its militiamen guard the entrance, keen to snatch relatives of the dead, many of them Sunni Muslim Arabs. Unclaimed Sunni corpses pile up.

A year ago, many still extolled "Shi'ite restraint," the majority sect's seeming disavowal of tit-for-tat reprisals for massacres of Shi'ites. But you don't hear much anymore about Shi'ite restraint. Its principal proponent, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, now seems a septuagenarian afterthought, his exasperated words from the southern city of Najaf reduced to near irrelevancy.

US forces find themselves in a strangely ambiguous role. Troops still battle mostly Sunni insurgents, especially in western Anbar Province. In Baghdad's Sunni districts, however, where residents once danced alongside burning Humvees, American troops are now tolerated as a bulwark against Shi'ite militias. But even that acceptance has its limits.

The US mission here is now defined largely as training Iraqi police and soldiers. But Sunnis don't trust the mostly Shi'ite security forces, often with good reason. The question lingers: Are US troops equipping Iraq's sectarian avengers?

At this point, anything seems possible, a descent of any depth into the abyss. Militiamen and residents are already sealing off neighborhoods by sect. Some have suggested district-to-district ID cards. Word broke of a plan to build barriers around this metropolis of 6 million and block the city's entrances with checkpoints. The "terror trench," as some immediately dubbed it, seemed to have a fundamental flaw: The killers already are in Baghdad.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives