Embattled Baghdad hopes worst of sectarian fury has passed

Shops and business still boarded up; food prices spike as supplies run low.

iraq baghdad 298 (photo credit: AP)
iraq baghdad 298
(photo credit: AP)
For three days, Najiya Saadoun hunkered down as black-clad gunmen cruised the streets in pickup trucks, bullet-riddled bodies collected in morgues, and security forces put Baghdad under lockdown. But as the wave of sectarian fury subsided, and religious leaders once again joined hands before television cameras in a symbolic gesture of Muslim unity, Njiya took courage and went looking for groceries to feed her family of six. "I feel happier now. I think the future will be good," said the 56-year-old woman wrapped in a black abaya and white head scarf as she hurried down an unusually quiet street. "For the last three days, I made use of what I had at home for the family. I will try to get some vegetables for today's meal." Residents of this embattled city of 7 million hoped the worst was over Sunday after the bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra four days ago unleashed a torrent of sectarian killings and reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. After days of curfews and vehicle bans, cars are out of gas, money is running low, and store shelves are emptying fast. Bakeries and supermarkets did a brisk trade Sunday, the first time pedestrians were allowed out in significant numbers since an extraordinary daytime curfew was imposed Friday. But with private vehicles still barred from the streets, and no new supplies reaching the city, prices were spiking. A kilo of rice that cost 750 dinars (50 US cents; 42 euro cents) four days ago were selling for 1,000 dinars (70 US cents; 60 euro cents). Fresh produce was hard to find. All Najim Nasir had left to offer his customers at an east Baghdad grocery store were potatoes. "I already sold everything else," he said. "It is difficult to get vegetables because of the curfew. I just have a lot of potatoes, which can be kept for a few days." Most shops and businesses remained boarded up, and streets normally chocked with traffic for the start of the work week were eerily empty. "We can't go on like this," grumbled Saad Hussein, a 35-year-old taxi driver, whose car remained parked in front of his house Sunday. "I am married, I have four children, and we depend on what I earn daily with this car. If this car is stopped, what can I do?" Armed Shiite militiamen blamed for many attacks on Sunnis in recent days withdrew from most neighborhoods, but police and army checkpoints gave the city a seige-like atmosphere. Security members in bullet proof vests, some with balaclavas covering their faces for fear of being identified by insurgents, frisked pedestrians and searched the few vehicles on the road. Even a bright yellow child-sized scooter was given a thorough search for hidden explosives. Men gathered on a street corner to share shisha pipes, and school boys took advantage of the unexpected holiday to play a game of soccer in a downtown street blocked off by rolls of razor wire. But despite glimpses of normality, the grim reality of this week's deadly toll was never far away. Boys at another impromptu game south of Baghdad stumbled across three cuffed and blindfolded bodies with gunshots to the head and chest, police said. Riyad Abdullah, 30, managed to keep his west Baghdad bakery open for three days after the Shiite shrine was bombed, but on Sunday he shut his doors. "I've run out of kerosine for the oven, and I can't get any more because the gas stations are closed," he said. Abdullah was encouraged when he saw political and religious leaders from all sides appeal for unity on television late Saturday. "I am quite sure there will be no civil war because the religious leaders of both Sunnis and Shiites are wise," he said. "They met together to stop any more attacks against the holy shrines and mosques, and to stop the bloodshed in the country. We trust them, and we feel they are doing the right thing for the country." But with sectarian anger still running high, others were less certain about what the future holds. "We had problems before the last sad events in Samarra, Baghdad and other provinces," said Taha Mousa, a 45-year-old minibus driver. "I pray to God to save Iraqis."