BAGHDAD, Iraq—Fear of informants turning in neighbors to police or militia groups has deeply undermined community trust in many parts of Baghdad.
Ahmed Ali, a 34-year-old barber in the ethnically mixed and violent Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, walked away from his business last month because he worried that his chitchat with customers would lead neighbors to suspect that he was informing on them to police—or militias, or whoever—and that he'd be marked for a retaliatory killing.
That's been happening a lot in Dora.
A word to the police can result in uniformed security officers or even private soldiers in fake uniforms dragging residents from their homes in the middle of the night—without legitimate cause, the victims complain. Angry and confused, their families suspect that neighborhood informants are feeding lies to the security forces to settle personal scores. The raids also have sown doubts that government security forces can protect the people.
Much of the suspicion is breaking down along ethnic lines, with Sunni and Shiite Muslims blaming each other. The progressive erosion of trust is one reason for the violent response to Wednesday's mosque bombing in Samarra, after which private militias roamed the streets. It underscores the failure so far to build public institutions that earn confidence and that could stand in the way of open civil war.
"The Shiites are afraid of threats and assassinations, while Sunnis are afraid of raids (by uniformed security). The kidnappings or assassinations take place during the daylight hours and the raids happen at night," Ali said. "Dora has become hell for both Shiite and Sunni residents."
Some shop owners say they try not to ask customers questions that they once considered innocuous. Behind closed doors, residents suspect their own relatives of bringing raids to their home.
Working-class neighborhoods that are still ethnically mixed—many others have segregated—are the most vulnerable, said Ihsan Mohammed al Hassan, a sociologist at Baghdad University.
"These people are taken away, and no one knows why," Hassan said. "When other people see that one person's life has been destroyed by a report, the whole community is in fear. They can't trust the police, and they can't trust their neighbor."
Najeeb Abdel Wahab said that when police commandos came to his home last August they dragged away the four Sunnis there, including him. Two Shiite technicians who were working on his generator were left behind, he said.
Wahab thinks they came to his home because Shiite informants in his western Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad accuse Sunni residents of working with the insurgency. He said he was held for 18 days. After he was released, he fled his home and hasn't returned.
"If I go home, they will arrest and torture me again," said Wahab, who filed a complaint with the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Islamic Party. "The person who told the commandos that we are Sunni is a neighbor who is a part of the Shiite militia. I will not do anything to him. I will leave that to God."
Sometimes families find the bodies of loved ones in the middle of the street with notes taped on their foreheads, saying, for example, "This is for being an informant." One police officer in Fallujah, Saad al Dulaimi, said he'd found at least 50 bodies with similar labels in the last two years and that all of them had been tortured.
Al-Qaida also has entered the revenge business, showing Web site videos of captured informants charged with working on American bases. In al-Qaida "trials," the suspected informants confess how they work and how much they're paid. They're invariably found guilty and beheaded.
Miriam Ali, who's unrelated to Ahmed Ali, said her father had been home only a few days after a long absence when a group of American soldiers charged into the family's house in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora.
With them was a man who wore a dark ski mask. He said nothing. His eyes searched the room, looked past her uncle and stopped at her father. The man pointed at the elderly man, and with that, the soldiers dragged her father away, she said.
After a fruitless yearlong search at jails, American bases and police stations, she's resigned that she won't find her father. But as she walks through the neighborhood, she keeps looking for the informant.
Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, a spokesman for U.S. military detentions, said the military had no record of arresting anyone with Ali's father's name. The facts in the case remain unclear, and some Iraqis say they're relieved when they see American forces because they know the soldiers are legitimate.
U.S military and Iraqi government officials say they use informants but that they double-check the information that's provided. They say they have a responsibility to follow tips in order to find kidnap victims or possible car bombers. And they say they pay informants.
"If we get information, we have to search," said Abd al Kareem al Anzy, the state minister of national security affairs. Our actions are justified "because we are defending our country."
Miriam Ali thinks that the disguised man—whom she can describe only as thin—didn't talk because he's from her neighborhood and didn't want the family to recognize his voice.
Who else, she reasons, would have known that her father had returned home days earlier after being away for months in the southern city of Nasiriyah. He'd hidden there because he'd feared that he'd be charged with being a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath party after his work in the military during Saddam's time.
"Since that incident we lost confidence in everyone. We suspect everybody, especially any thin persons among our relatives or neighbors," Miriam Ali said in a telephone interview.
The Iraqi Islamic Party told supporters last month that they should defend their homes against suspicious raids.
Omar al Jubouri, the head of the party's human rights section, said police forces had taken at least 300 mostly Sunni residents in raids in just two neighborhoods since the Dec. 15 elections for a new government, according to information reported to his party. He plans to complain to the government.
Residents of many Baghdad neighborhoods have prepared their homes for possible raids. They've buried valuables in their backyards and put loaded guns near their beds, and parents sleep with their children between them. Some families keep someone awake at night to greet any raiders and try to defuse the situation.
Wahab said he'd come to expect such raids. In December, commandos returned to his house and took his older brother, he said.
In the Hay al Salam neighborhood in central Baghdad—an older mixed area that the government built 50 years ago—in which raids and retaliatory killings are among the highest in the capital, neighborhood leaders complained that when they confront the government the day after a raid, officials deny everything, even though residents describe men who use police vehicles and wear bulletproof vests.
Often the raiders' identities are unclear, since they usually don't identify themselves and police uniforms can be bought easily on the black market.
That uncertainty has stoked a climate of fear and distrust.
When the government doesn't take responsibility, "It will make people fight back against any force that comes into the area," said Kamil Tahir al Bidhani, a city council member in Hay al Salam.
(Knight Ridder special correspondents Zaineb Obeid and Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.