As Sunni militants rampaged across northern Iraq last week, executing Iraqi soldiers and government workers and threatening to demolish Shiism’s most sacred shrines, Iraq’s Shiites suffered mostly in silence, maintaining a patience urged on them by their religious leaders through months of deadly bombings.
On Tuesday, though, there were signs that their patience had run out.
The bodies of 44 Sunni prisoners were found in a government-controlled police station in Baquba, about 40 miles north of Baghdad.
They had all been shot Monday night in the head or chest. Then the remains of four young men who had been shot were found dumped Tuesday on a street in a Baghdad neighbourhood controlled by Shiite militiamen.
By evening, it was Shiites who were the victims again, as a suicide bombing in a crowded market in Sadr City killed at least 14 people, local hospital officials said.
It is a darkly familiar cycle of violence, one that took hold in Iraq in 2006 and generated a vicious sectarian war over the next three years: Sunni extremists explode suicide bombs in Shiite neighbourhoods, and Shiite militias retaliate by torturing and executing Sunnis.
This time, though, without the presence of the American military, it has the potential to grow much worse.
That bloodletting was stopped in 2008 only after Iraqi tribal leaders in the pay of the American military rebelled against the Sunni extremists.
With prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki now encouraging what he says are hundreds of thousands of Shiites to rise to the defence of Iraq, and after years of sectarian government that has deeply alienated the tribes as well as the Sunnis, it is not clear that such a strategy, if tried, would meet with the same success.
“If there is no fast solution to what is happening, the situation will go back to daily attacks and will return to what happened back in 2006,” said Masroor Aswad, a member of the Independent Human Rights Commission here.
He said the minority Sunnis were terrified that they would be blamed for any violence against Shiites, leaving them vulnerable to brutal retaliatory attacks from the Shiite militias.
In Baquba, the killings took place after an assault in which militants aligned with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria overran several neighbourhoods, security officials there said.
A police source said the Sunni militants attacked the police station where the men, suspected of ties to the insurgents, were being held for questioning.
“Those people were detainees who were arrested in accordance with Article 4 terrorism offences,” he said, referring to Iraqi antiterrorism legislation that gives security forces extraordinary arrest powers.
“They were killed inside the jail by the policemen before they withdrew from the station last night.”
Brig Gen Jameel Kamal al-Shimmari, the police commander in Baquba, said that officers had repulsed the militants from the city after a three-hour gun battle in the same area as the police station where the prisoners were subsequently killed.
“Everything in the city is now under control, and the groups of armed men are not seen in the city,” General Shimmari said on Tuesday.
Officials at the morgue in Baquba said that two police officers had been killed in the fighting. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria claimed in a Twitter post that the prisoners had been executed by the police.
An Iraqi military spokesman, Gen Qassim Atta, blamed the deaths in Baquba on the militants, saying the prisoners died when the station was struck with hand grenades and mortars.
However, a source at the morgue in Baquba said that many of the victims had been shot to death at close range. Like many of the official sources in Iraq, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the news media.
Worst sectarian violence
The fighting in Baquba was particularly worrying, because it represented the closest the rebel group and its allies have come to the capital.
After capturing Mosul a week ago, the group has advanced more than 230 miles, mostly down the valley of the Tigris River. Baquba, and the surrounding province of Diyala, is a volatile mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and was the scene of some of the worst sectarian violence in past years.
As the fighting creeps closer to Baghdad, the offensive is being led not just by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria but by fighters drawn from other Sunni militant groups — the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Islamic Army, according to an Iraqi intelligence source.
Both of those groups have long had a presence in Diyala Province and were involved in some of the bloodiest fighting during the past sectarian battles.
The 1920 Revolution Brigades was formed by disaffected Iraqi Army officers who were left without jobs after the Americans dissolved the military in 2003.
Throughout Baghdad, residents expressed fears that the violence was finding its way back into their neighbourhoods.
“You see gunmen in the street; you don’t know who is who,” said Ahmad al-Kharabai, who has a small hardware store in Al-Adil, a mixed neighbourhood in southern Baghdad where Sunnis live mainly on one side of the primary road and Shiites live mainly on the other. “You don’t know who is with you, and who’s against you,” he said.
“People are afraid, we are afraid of the militiamen around; I think things will go as badly as they did before,” he said, adding that he was desperate to leave with his family for Turkey but that flights were booked for weeks.
A travel agent refused even to estimate how long it would take to get him and his five children and wife on a plane. Gailani’s greatest fear is that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will gain ground.
“Any gain by ISIS will have a negative effect on Sunnis here,” he said.
In eastern Baghdad, the bodies of four young men were found without identity documents on a street in the Benuk neighbourhood on Tuesday morning.
They were believed to have been Sunnis, because the area is controlled by Shiite militiamen.
The area is largely Shiite but also includes Sunnis, and no one had initially claimed the young men’s bodies, an Interior Ministry official said.
The victims were 25 to 30 years old and had been shot multiple times, he said.
The killings fit the pattern of Shite death squads during the sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007, at the height of the American-led invasion.
At the peak of the violence, as many as 80 bodies a day were found in Baghdad and its immediate suburbs.
The situation was highly fluid on Tuesday, with the Iraqi Army focused on trying to win back some of the ground it had lost.However, there had not yet been any official government announcement of the recapture of the city.
The Iraqi government issued a statement accusing Saudi Arabia of funding the Sunni extremists, as Maliki continued to offer explanations for the stunning success of the Sunni extremists that do not focus on his leadership.
The statement drew immediate criticism from the US, with Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, describing it as inaccurate and ‘offensive.’