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Sectarian violence tears at the lives of Iraq's soldiers

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The men of the 1st Brigade of the Iraqi army's 6th Division work in the shadow of death.

Most of the soldiers are Shiite Muslims, from Iraq's majority religious sect. Saddam Hussein's military intelligence unit—mainly Sunni Muslims—once used the base they live on, in the Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Kadhemiya, to interrogate and torture Shiites. They sleep in rooms where Saddamist thugs slept before them. They work in offices that were once torture chambers.

The 1st Brigade is considered one of the best Iraqi outfits in the country. It was the first to get its own area of operations—the rough and tumble area west of the Tigris River in Baghdad—and it's capable of designing and carrying out complex missions.

Yet many of the Shiite soldiers harbor deep anger toward Iraq's Sunni minority, and it's unclear where their loyalties lie: to Iraq or to their Shiite religious leaders.

As soon as they cross into Sunni neighborhoods they face men willing to die just to spill their blood.

And it's no better for the Sunnis among them.

Sunni troops in the brigade and their families are frequently hunted down and killed by insurgents incensed that one of their own would join an army that many Sunnis consider an extension of a Shiite push to take over the nation.

The violence and the sectarian divide have torn at the men's lives. On one hand, many of the Shiites would like to purge the nation of a Sunni population that they suspect harbors the Sunni insurgents who kill them. On the other hand, many of them are married to Sunnis, and some of their fallen comrades are Sunni.

Shiite troops tell the story of Lt. Col. Waleed Mohammed with reverence.

Mohammed, a Sunni whose family is from the town of Taji, had eight brothers and cousins serving in the army. All of them were killed either while on duty or at home.

At least one of the brothers was killed by members of his own tribe.

Last month, Mohammed, who was on leave after being injured by a roadside bomb, was driving outside of his house with his brother. A bomb exploded, killing his brother and leaving Mohammed paralyzed. He's now in a Baghdad hospital, unable to speak. He receives his food through one tube and urinates through another.

But the same men who praise Mohammed and his family's sacrifice also seethe with rage toward the Sunni population.

"The people of Hurriyah deserve to be doused with gasoline and set on fire," said 1st Sgt. Khalid Jabar, while driving through a local Sunni neighborhood last week. "When they kill Shiites no one asks why. But when they found out it was their turn to be killed they ask the whole world to help them."

Many Sunni troops interviewed said that the bloodshed and the sectarian strife make them want to quit.

Staff Sgt. Kamal Thafer, a Sunni, said he sees dead bodies in the streets of western Baghdad on most days, and while he wants to fight for his nation, he's more worried about his Sunni friends and families.

"I feel like I should be home, defending my family; all of Iraq is a battlefield," Thafer said. "Do you have any idea how many people are being killed in Baghdad? We (soldiers) have been sacrificing our lives since 2003. But we have been sacrificing for nothing."

Maj. Amar Ahmed, a Sunni in charge of the brigade's commando unit, said:

"An American adviser told me one time that if the army made it hard for me to accept Shiites I should leave. I am close to quitting right now."

Ahmed said he's stayed because he believes in the brigade's commander, Brig. Gen. Jaleel Khalif Shwail.

Shwail, a Shiite, doesn't wear a flak vest or a helmet when on patrol with his men, to show his lack of fear, and he's well liked by his American counterparts.

He also keeps a certificate of appreciation from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's office hanging in his work area, and he frequently consults with an ayatollah closely aligned with al-Sistani, the top Shiite cleric in Iraq.

The sight of his men, and other Shiites, killed in Sunni neighborhoods makes his blood boil.

"Workers from the southern provinces come to work for a few dollars a day to send their money back to (southern towns) Basra and Nasiriyah. Why are they killed in Baghdad?" he asked. "I met a brother of one of the men killed recently. He was crying violently. He'd lost two brothers in bombings recently and each of them left behind seven children. It is difficult to see a man crying like that. ... Iraqi blood has been made cheap by these dogs."

Asked whether he meant Sunni insurgents or Sunnis in general, Shwail, who's married to a Sunni, started to reply. But he stopped short and did not answer.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.