As Shiites mark key holiday next week, Baghdad braces for more violence

Volunteers pass out free cups of tea at one of the countless way stations set up in Baghdad by Shiite Muslim businesses, organizations and militias during the sacred first month of the new Islamic year.
Volunteers pass out free cups of tea at one of the countless way stations set up in Baghdad by Shiite Muslim businesses, organizations and militias during the sacred first month of the new Islamic year. McClatchy

Sitting behind a counter heaped with glistening mounds of baklava and other sugary confections, Abbas Abdul Rasoul lamented that the streams of people wending by to the Khadamiya shrine to mark the Islamic new year are thinner than in recent years.

“This year there will be fewer pilgrims,” predicted Rasoul, 24, whose shop sits on a broad avenue normally thronged by worshipers bound for the gold-domed mosque during Muharram, the sacred first month of the Islamic calendar. “You can see there are smaller crowds than usual because of the explosions.”

The panic ignited by the Islamic State’s midsummer charge from the northern city of Mosul to the capital’s doorstep has eased as Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias, Iraqi army remnants, police and U.S.-led airstrikes have rallied to slow the extremist Islamist group’s approach. There no longer is rampant fear that the Sunni fanatics are poised to storm the capital imminently.

Yet Baghdad has been hit by a slew of bombings in recent weeks that seem intended to disrupt Muharram and shatter public confidence in the new Shiite Muslim-dominated government of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, the politician plucked from relative obscurity who the Obama administration hopes will find a way to bridge the country’s sectarian divide.

The results have been oddly schizophrenic, with Baghdadis carrying on as best they can while security has been tightened in anticipation of more violence to come.

“I don’t care about the threat,” said Safwan Sami, 41, watching his wife, two children, two sisters and mother-in-law clapping and singing as they rowed an inflatable raft across a swimming pool on the edge of the languid Tigris River. “Somehow we have gotten used to this life. I have a feeling that the threats won’t reach close to me.”

Yet the attacks are having their intended impact on some.

“The government is too weak to stop them. I have no confidence in it. Three-quarters of the people believe this,” said Abu Ali, 37, whose used car parts store is next door to a small, back-alley Shiite mosque hit by an Oct. 21 suicide bombing that killed at least 10 people and injured 22 others during noontime prayers.

“All of these things happen because of the ideology of some people, including some of our politicians,” said Ali, a Shiite married to a Sunni. “We want our city to be secure, but I don’t know what will happen next.”

The blasts have maimed and killed hundreds in the capital, which has become dominated by Shiites in the years since Saddam Hussein was toppled. The Islamic State, with its radical interpretation of Sunni Islam, considers Shiites to be apostates and has slaughtered hundreds if not thousands in the months since it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June.

The latest blast occurred Monday evening in Baghdad’s commercial heart. It targeted one of the countless roadside way stations erected by Shiite militias and businessmen to offer pilgrims and passers-by free tea, water, biscuits and a place to rest during Muharram.

Many fear worse is to come over the next week as hundreds of thousands of Shiite faithful make their way south to the city of Karbala to worship at the tomb of Hussein Ali, the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, for Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram. This year, Ashura falls on Nov. 4.

On that day, Shiites participate in huge processions to mourn Hussein, whose death in the battle of Karbala in 680 AD cemented the Sunni-Shiite schism now fueling much of today’s strife across the region.

Flags, posters and banners emblazoned with portraits of Hussein, revered by Shiites as a symbol of sacrifice, are everywhere, festooning homes, offices, shops and the miles of concrete blast walls erected across the city during the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation.

They also fly from government buildings, drape security checkpoints and hang from police car antennas, blunt reminders to Sunnis of their underdog status in the wake of Saddam’s overthrow; Saddam had banned Shiites’ Muharram rituals.

Ali Khazil, 25, was overseeing a way station in the downtown Karada neighborhood manned by members of the new prime minister’s Iran-backed Dawa – or Islamic Call – party. Religious chants blared from speakers as two camouflage-clad militiamen kept Rayban-shrouded watch on passing vehicles and passers-by, and volunteers handed out bottled water and glasses of over-sugared tea.

Khazil dismissed intelligence warnings of Islamic State suicide bombers, saying that many celebrants welcome the chance to enter paradise during Muharram.

“These days, the pilgrims want to sacrifice themselves. They want the suicide bombers to come to them,” he said. “They will then become martyrs.”

A few blocks away, two volunteers pouring tea and handing out cookies at another way station stood as symbols of Iraq’s delicate weave of religious and ethnic groups that has largely unraveled since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Safwan Naweez, 30, and his brother, Marwan, 33, are Christians, members of a centuries-old minority once numbering more than 1 million Iraqis. An estimated 90 percent have been driven from their homes by Islamic extremist persecution. Many have emigrated.

Safwan, a clerk at a small pharmacy sponsoring the way station, said that he planned to join the Shiite pilgrims making the 65-mile trek from Baghdad to Hussein’s shrine in the city of Karbala, as he did last year.

“We love Imam Hussein. I made a wish and I received it after I went to Karbala,” he said. “When I got to Karbala, I learned that my wish had been answered. I’d wished for a son.”

He, his wife and their baby are now sharing their small two-room apartment with his brother and nine other family members who fled on foot from the assault on Mosul by the Islamic State, which ordered Christians to convert to Islam or be killed.

“We took nothing with us, only the clothes we were wearing,” recalled Marwan, who’s been unable to find work. “We left everything. Our homes, our cars.”

Even so, the brothers insisted that they wouldn’t seek safety abroad like many other Christians.

“We will die here,” said Marwan Naweez. “I was born here in Iraq. We live here in Iraq. So I have to die here in Iraq.”

Several days earlier, employees of the Habayibna Restaurant were dragging out pieces of bent metal and sweeping up concrete rubble and broken glass from the latest – and most destructive – of a series of bomb attacks outside the popular eatery in the Shiite neighborhood of Talbiya since 2003.

At least 12 people died and dozens were injured on Oct. 21 when an explosives-laden car detonated in the parking lot directly in front of the patio where diners were sitting. A few minutes later, a second car bomb exploded a little further away. Their twisted, blackened hulks sat nearby.

“This is an old and popular restaurant for Shiites,” said a waiter, who’d only give a first name of Sajad. “The Shiites are targets everywhere. In the past, the Sunnis were ruling the country under Saddam Hussein, and now the Shiites are. So they (Sunnis) have a kind of hatred for us.”

Abu Abdullah, a 38-year-old father of three whose cousin owns the restaurant, said that he was standing near the second car when it exploded, but he escaped injury because the force was deflected upward by a vehicle parked between him and the blast.

He shrugged off the possibility that the restaurant could be targeted again.

“It’s no problem. We have to face the terrorism,” he said. “We will rebuild it (the restaurant) again and again because our lives depend on it.”