Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The pet shop keeper

Iraq's Crisis (3)

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 25 — Mohannad al-Azawi had just finished sprinkling food in his bird cages at his pet shop in south Baghdad, when three carloads of gunmen pulled up. In front of a crowd, he was grabbed by his shirt and driven off. Mr. Azawi was among the few Sunni Arabs on the block, and, according to witnesses, when a Shiite friend tried to intervene, a gunman stuck a pistol to his head and said, "You want us to blow your brains out, too?"  Mr. Azawi's body was found the next morning at a sewage treatment plant. A slight man who raised nightingales, he had been hogtied, drilled with power tools and shot.

What frightens Iraqis most about these gangland-style killings is the impunity. According to reports filed by family members and more than a dozen interviews, many men were taken in daylight, in public, with witnesses all around. Few cases, if any, have been investigated.

Mahmoud Othman, the Kurd, again: he said there were atrocities on each side. "But what is different is when Shiites get killed by suicide bombs, everyone comes together to fight the Sunni terrorists. When Shiites kill Sunnis, there is no response, because much of this killing is done by militias connected to the government."

Now many Sunnis, who used to be the most anti-American community in Iraq, are asking for American help. "If the Americans leave, we are finished," said Hassan al-Azawi, whose brother was taken from the pet shop. He thought for a moment more. "We may be finished already."

Friends said that Mr. Azawi was not interested in politics or religion. He never went to the Sunni mosque, though his brothers did. He did not pay attention to news or watch television. This characteristic might have cost him his life. On Feb. 22, the Askariya Shrine in Samarra was attacked at 7 a.m. But Mr. Azawi did not know what had happened until 4 p.m., his friends said. He was in his own little world, tending his birds, when a Shiite shopkeeper broke the news and told him to close.
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Two Shiite militias, the Badr Organization, which once trained in Iran, and the Mahdi Army, the foot soldiers of a young, firebrand Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, were blamed for much of the bloodshed. Mr. Sadr's men often wear all-black uniforms, and many of the relatives of kidnapped people said men in black uniforms had taken them. Many people also said the men in black arrived with the police. Around 9 on the night of the shrine bombing, a mob of black-clad men surrounded the Duleimi brothers, family members said.

That same day Mushtak al-Nidawi, 20, was kidnapped. According to an aunt, Aliah al-Bakr, he was chatting on his cellphone outside his home in Bayah when a squad of Mahdi militiamen marched up the street, shouting, "We're coming after you, Sunnis!" Ms. Bakr said they snatched Mr. Nidawi while his mother stood at the door. His body surfaced on the streets seven days later, his skin a map of bruises, his handsome face burned by acid, his fingernails pulled out.

A new round of revenge attacks began March 12, around 6 p.m., when a string of car bombs exploded in Sadr City, killing nearly 50 civilians. Most security officials, Shiite and Sunni, blamed Sunni terrorists for the attack. An hour and a half later, half a dozen gunmen arrived at Mr. Azawi's pet shop.
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His brother Hassan ...said there were a few Shiites at his brother's funeral, which he took as a grim speck of hope.

On March 20, the body of Mr. Abdulsalam, another Sunni, was found under a bridge.  His family said he was last seen in his BMW, stopped at a Mahdi Army checkpoint. (NYT, March 26, 2006, Bound, Blindfolded and Dead: The Face of Revenge in Baghdad )

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