Battle for Baghdad 'has already started'
By Patrick Cockburn in Arbil
-- -- The battle between Sunni and Shia Muslims for control of Baghdad has already started, say
Iraqi political leaders who predict fierce street fighting will
break out as each community takes over districts in which it is
"The fighting will only stop when a new balance of power has
emerged," Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Massoud Barzani,
the Kurdish leader, said. "Sunni and Shia will each take control
of their own area." He said sectarian cleansing had already
Many Iraqi leaders now believe that civil war is inevitable but
it will be confined, at least at first, to the capital and
surrounding provinces where the population is mixed. "The real
battle will be the battle for Baghdad where the Shia have
increasing control," said one senior official who did not want
his name published. "The army will disintegrate in the first
moments of the war because the soldiers are loyal to the Shia,
Sunni or Kurdish communities and not to the government." He
expected the Americans to stay largely on the sidelines.
Throughout the capital, communities, both Sunni and Shia, are on
the move, fleeing districts where they are in a minority and
feel under threat. Sometimes they fight back. In the mixed but
majority Shia al-Amel district, Sunni householders recently
received envelopes containing a Kalashnikov bullet and a letter
telling them to get out at once. In this case they contacted the
insurgents who killed several Shia neighbours suspected of
sending the letters.
"The Sunni will fight for Baghdad," said Mr Hussein. "The Baath
party already controls al-Dohra and other Sunni groups dominate
Ghazaliyah and Abu Ghraib [districts in south and west
The Iraqi army is likely to fall apart once inter-communal
fighting begins. According to Peter Galbraith, former US
diplomat and expert on Iraq, the Iraqi army last summer
contained 60 Shia battalions, 45 Sunni battalions, nine Kurdish
battalions and one mixed battalion.
The police are even more divided and in Baghdad are largely
controlled by the Mehdi Army of the radical nationalist cleric
Muqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organisation that has largely been
in control of the interior ministry since last May. Sunni Arabs
in Baghdad regard the ministry's paramilitary police commanders
as Shia death squads
Mr Hussein gave another reason why the army is weak. "Where you
have 3,000 soldiers there will in fact be only 2,000 men
[because of ghost soldiers who do not exist and whose salaries
are taken by senior officers]," he said. "When it comes to
fighting only 500 of those men will turn up."
Iraqi officials and ministers are increasingly in despair at the
failure to put together an effective administration in Baghdad.
A senior Arab minister, who asked not to be named, said: "The
government could end up being only a few buildings in the Green
The mood among Iraqi leaders, both Arabs and Kurds, is far
gloomier in private than the public declarations of the US and
British governments. The US President George W Bush called this
week for a national unity government in Iraq but Iraqi observers
do not expect this to be any more effective than the present
government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. One said this
week: "The real problem is that the Shia and Sunni hate each
other and not that we haven't been able to form a government."
The Shia and Kurds will have the advantage in the coming
conflict because they have leaders and organisations. The Sunni
are divided and only about 30 per cent of the population of the
capital. Nevertheless they should be able to hold on to their
stronghold in west Baghdad and the Adhamiyah district east of
the Tigris. The Shia do not have the strength and probably do
not wish to take over the Sunni towns and villages north and
west of Baghdad.
Though the Kurds have long sought autonomy close to
quasi-independence, their leaders are worried that civil war
will increase Iranian and Turkish involvement in Iraq. Mr
Hussein said he feared that civil war in Baghdad could spread
north to Mosul and Kirkuk where the division is between Kurd and
Arab rather than Sunni and Shia.
Already Baghdad resembles Beirut at the start of the Lebanese
civil war in 1975, when Christians and Muslims fought each other
for control of the city.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited