As the sun goes down and most Baghdad residents take refuge in their homes, Maamoun Abdul Wahab takes to the streets — a pistol tucked in his clothes.
For about 12 hours, he prowls the narrow alleys of Baghdad’s heavily Sunni Azamiyah district, part of a neighborhood watch group formed to fend off Shiite militias and Interior Ministry commando units considered by many Sunnis as little more than death squads.
“If the militias or the commandos set foot here, we will fight them — either they die or we die,” Abdul Wahab declared. “If we let them in, they will kill us anyway, so we might as well defend ourselves.”
Neighborhood watch groups formed after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime to guard against looters and criminals. Many re-emerged after the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra sparked reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques, raising fears of civil war.
Shortly after the Samarra attack, word spread in Azamiyah that Shiite militiamen took over a nearby Sunni mosque, plastering it with photos of Shiite clerics, Abdul Wahab said. Squatting on the floor with a group of friends in the neighborhood’s Abu Hanifa Mosque, the men decided to take matters in their hands.
By day, Abdul Wahab sells construction and plumbing materials. He returns home at about 4 p.m., eats and sleeps for a few hours before his guard duties begin. He said he started off as a volunteer, but the Sunni Endowment, a government agency that takes care of Sunni religious sites, decided to pay him about $65 a month to keep an eye on mosques and neighborhood streets.
Residents are happy to see the group standing guard, he said. Some make them tea. Others offer cake.
Abdul Wahab has made other friends on the streets too: army soldiers who he says patrol the area unarmed. He plays backgammon and sips tea with them.
“I trust the army, but not the police. The police detain Sunnis. They torture them with electric drills and execute them,” he said.
The army falls under the Defense Ministry, which is led by a Sunni Arab.
Sunni insurgents have for long targeted Shiites, who dominate the government, with bombings and kidnappings. The campaign, said to be aimed at dragging Iraq into a sectarian war, has spawned tit-for-tat killings. Acts of revenge drove members of both communities out of their homes and triggered Sunni accusations that Shiite militias and security forces torture, kidnap and kill Sunnis.
In some Shiite neighborhoods, residents or militiamen establish watch groups to keep out car bombers and other attackers.
In mixed neighborhoods, fear of violence sometimes transcends sectarian differences.
In the Jihad area of Baghdad, Jawad Kadhim oversees a 25-member neighborhood watch group that he said includes Shiites, Sunnis and Christians. Each family pays the group about $6.50 a month.
Group formed after assassinations
Kadhim said the group came together after the Samarra bombing spawned assassinations in his neighborhood.
“Please don’t ask me if I am a Shiite or a Sunni. We don’t have such distinctions,” Kadhim said, though he earlier said he was a Shiite and a former member of the Iraqi army.
When a Sunni mosque in Jihad was attacked by men “in commando uniforms” after the Samarra bombing, Shiites and Sunnis repelled the assailants, Kadhim said.
“We cannot feel safe at night as long as these militias they brought us from abroad are here. Nowadays, you cannot tell who is a militiaman and who is with the government forces.”
Attackers dressed as police
It doesn’t help that in many cases attackers reportedly wore police uniforms. Kadhim said his group would fire on any police patrol that is not accompanied by Americans or a local leader.
Deputy Interior Minister Ahmed Khafaji said the ministry was studying the idea of neighborhood watch groups. He said they were looking into the possibility of having unarmed “good residents” keep strangers out of their neighborhoods.
“This doesn’t mean stopping the security forces from going in, though,” he said. “We will firmly deal with any militia-like armed presence.”
Privately, police say they generally avoid confrontations with neighborhood watch groups as long as the men keep away from main streets.
In Azamiyah, Abdul Wahab said he conceals his weapon when an American patrol passes by.
His team started with 10 men, but now has more than 100, he said. Many of them don’t get paid, he added.
Mohammed Abdul Sattar is one of the Azamiyah volunteers. He takes turns with his three sons — one a university student and two in high school — watching their street.
Suspicious of strangers
They question strangers and at times even search them. If there is a reason to be suspicious, they turn them over to the Iraqi army in the neighborhood.
“We have to defend ourselves by ourselves. If there were law and order, we wouldn’t have been forced to do this,” said Abdul Sattar, a 49-year-old businessman. “Instead, there is insecurity. There are militias who have infiltrated the security apparatuses. There are daily provocations and killings.”
Abdul Sattar said he didn’t see their efforts to police the neighborhood as an affront to the government.
“We hope that the law can rule,” he said. “Our problem is not with the law, our problem is with those who carry out the law.”
So why don’t Azamiyah residents let the army guard the neighborhood?
Anger at the army
“The army cannot control the situation. If they had the ability, they would have controlled the situation in the mosques that were burnt down,” argued Nateq Ibrahim, a 42-year-old fruit vendor who joined the Azamiyah group along with two brothers.
“This left me very angry,” Ibrahim said of the attacks on Sunnis mosques.
He said his anger was not directed at all Shiites, only at those who attack Sunnis.
“We have Shiite families in Azamiyah, and we have no problems with them. We protect them too.”
But he warned that things could get ugly if Azamiyah came under attack.
“Now, we’re just this group of volunteers,” he said. “But if the militias enter the neighborhood, the whole of Azamiyah will erupt.”