Ethnic Cleansing in Baghdad
I watched ethnic cleansing today, and it wasn’t pretty.
I’m in Gazaliyah, a neighborhood that was predominantly Sunni Muslim until recently, when Shia militants have been taking over, block by block, forcing out longtime Sunni residents. These kind of things can stay abstract when you read about them, but today I watched it, as the Iraqi Army, which is mostly Shia, decided to tear down a block’s worth of concrete shops belonging mostly to Sunnis.
I’m traveling with Bing West, the former Marine in Vietnam and assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan years, who’s in a third career as an author on war. We listened together to the Iraqi Army’s justification for the razing–the shops were being used as firing positions by Sunni militants–and it made Bing almost immediately explode into laughter.
“These little shops, firing positions? They’re low and exposed; you’d have to have a death wish to fire on someone from these.” As a bulldozer pulled up and revved it’s engine ominously, flabbergasted Sunnis residents across the street emerged in protest, and the likely real reason of the demolition became clear: this wall of shops protects their houses from the gunfire and attacks from the encroaching Shia neighborhood on the other side. Purely a question of firing angles for future purges.
As the bulldozer moved into position, Iraqi Army soldiers pilfered through the shops, choosing items to steal casually, as if they were browsing at a mall. Most took radios and other electronics. I watched the sad spectacle, so brazenly unfolding before me, and began to photograph it. One soldier looked up, grimaced, and then ran up to me and stood nearly chest to chest and shouted in Arabic. Another Iraqi soldier who spoke some English, seeing the trouble, bolted over and said, “He does not want you to take his picture. He says to erase the pictures you have taken now.”
The bulldozer went to work, simply ramming the little concrete buildings until they collapsed, sometimes driving the massive scoop of the machine into a wall even as the Iraqi Army soldiers were busy looting inside, sending them scurrying outside with laughter as the building came down behind them. In less than an hour it was done; the rows of shops were now just a pile of concrete blocks. Water mains spurted like exposed arteries and the area started to flood. Neighborhood boys started showing up, rummaging through the piles for salvageable wares. One boy found a bent ten-speed bicycle and gamely grabbed it, wading through deep mud to get it out.