Welcome as the quiet is in Baghdad, it’s not because the raging sides have settled. AP reports, “Only an estimated 16 percent of the mainly Sunni families forced by Shi’ite militiamen and death squads to flee their homes have dared to return.”
We congratulate ourselves for securing the country, but the militias did that job for us. At the height of the ethnic cleansing, the Times of London ran the story of Um Noor, a Sunni woman whose Shi’ite husband was killed by a roadside bomb on his way to work. She had always considered herself nonsectarian—was her mixed marriage not proof? But soon after his death, she awoke to a sign spray-painted across her home in Baghdad’s Shi’ite Amil district: “Leave this house or else.” A week later, her brother was run down by the Madhi Army and shot three times for the crime of being Sunni. Desperate to save her three sons and two daughters, Um Noor made plans to flee, but as she waited for a refrigerator to be removed, masked men burst into her house, seizing her oldest son, 20-year-old Ali, and 6-year old nephew Abdullah. “I shouted and beat my breast and yanked my hair in the street but no one could do anything,” she told the Times. “A few minutes later we heard shots. I knew they were dead.”
Um Noor fled with her pregnant sister-in-law and their six remaining children to Sunni Abu Ghraib, but couldn’t escape the fear: “If anyone knew her children were Shi’ites, they would be cast out or killed, she said.” She buried the identity papers with their father’s Shi’ite name.
AP quotes Juan Cole, of the incomparable Informed Comment blog, “Baghdad has been turned from a mixed city, about half of its population Shi’ite and the other half Sunni, into a Shi’ite city where the Sunni population may be as little as 10 to 15 percent.”
U.S. and Iraqi forces have swept the militas from the streets—a task aided by the fact that their bloody mission was mostly accomplished. But would the uneasy calm hold if Sunnis began returning to their deserted neighborhoods? In many cases, they can’t: their districts are walled off and access is tightly controlled, lest the bloodletting begin again. And many have given up, struggling to establish new lives in Syria and Jordan.
It’s common now to credit the surge for pacifying Iraq, but we shouldn’t mistake annihilation for reconciliation. Democracy didn’t win out in Baghdad. The death squads did.