Even as Iraq slowly claws back territory from the Islamic State group, faith in the government is crumbling among many, particularly the country’s Shiites, angered by political disarray and the continual pounding of the capital, Baghdad, by militants’ bombings.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi triumphantly announced the beginning of operations to retake the Islamic State-held city Fallujah, promising over the weekend that “the Iraqi flag will rise high” once more over the city. On Monday, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. warplanes battled the militants on the outskirts of Fallujah, a major prize that has been held for more than two years by the Islamic State group.
But in Baghdad, many residents are still reeling from a stunning barrage of suicide attacks the previous week that hit crowded markets, checkpoints a restaurant, a cafe and a gas plant killing more than 200 people, largely in Shiite areas. Rather than sow fear, the attacks seemed to stoke anger, particularly at the political elite.
Hundreds of protesters, including families of victims from the bombings, stormed Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone on Friday, demanding better security and government reform. Iraqi forces fired tear gas and live ammunition on the crowds, and the violence left two protesters dead and a number of military personnel wounded in knife attacks. It was the second time in a month that protesters have broken into the zone, where the government is headquartered.
The rising tempers are spilling over into potentially dangerous divisions among Iraq’s powerful Shiite militias. The two protests inside the Green Zone were dominated by followers of influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has led a campaign of anti-government protests, initially demanding government reform, but now also calling for accountability in light of security breaches that allowed the Islamic State group to carry out the wave of recent attacks.
“Woe to the government that kills her own children in cold blood,” al-Sadr said in a statement following Friday’s clashes.
Al-Sadr’s shows of force have also prompted rival militias to deploy in the streets, with each side vowing to protect Iraqis. That has raised fears of frictions or outright violence between the various camps.
Hours after Friday’s violence, gunmen in the southern city of Amarah fired on the local headquarters of the Badr Brigade, a militia closely associated with the Interior Ministry and a rival of al-Sadr’s. Militia officials accused al-Sadr’s fighters of being behind the shooting, which left no casualties.
“There are those who want a fight between the Shiites,” said Ali Hassan, a senior official in the Badr Brigade. “But we will not be dragged into that fighting, our only goal now is to fight Daesh,” he said using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Divisions among Shiite militias reflect splits among the parties backing them that have gone on for months. Iraq’s political leadership has seemed increasingly paralyzed. Al-Abadi’s government has been promising reforms to reduce rampant corruption for months but has not come through with them. Parliament has been unable to convene as many lawmakers are refusing to meet, citing security concerns.
Visiting a Shiite shrine to pray for her family’s safety, Iktisam Adeeb said the bombings show how the leadership is corrupt and the security forces ineffective.
“Our politicians are just like puppets and someone else is pulling the strings,” she said at the Sayyed Idriss shrine, one of several such holy sites in Baghdad revered by Shiites.
Days after she spoke, a rocket hit the shrine complex, damaging an administrative building.
Shiite militias are increasingly stepping in to provide security they accuse the police and army of failing to bring.
After some of the deadliest bombings hit in Sadr City — the large Shiite district in Baghdad that is a stronghold of al-Sadr — the cleric’s militia fanned out in the streets of the district.
“There is no confidence in the security forces,” said one commander of Saraya al-Salam, or the Peace Brigades, as al-Sadr’s militia is called. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Last month, al-Sadr’s supporters swarmed into the Green Zone while security forces did nothing.
Afterward, other Shiite militias — including ones that are strong opponents of al-Sadr — sent their own fighters into the streets in the areas around the Green Zone to keep security.
Aqeel al-Rubaie, who owns a shop just blocks from the Green Zone, said he was shocked by the flood of Shiite fighters.
“I thought the state had collapsed and they were moving in,” he said. Now instead of worrying about Islamic State group attacks, he said, “I’m worried about fighting among the Shiites. Everyone has a gun and money, and now they’re out in the streets.”
Officials have painted the surge in bombings in the capital as a sign of militants’ desperation as they lose ground in the face of Iraqi forces backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition. Last week, Iraqi state television interrupted normal programing to proclaim a new victory, the retaking of the western town of Rutba, playing patriotic music videos hailing the bravery of the armed forces.
But claims of victory ring hollow for many amid the bloodshed in Baghdad’s streets and the disarray in the government.
Hussein Mohammed, 75, a businessman originally from Najaf who was visiting the Sayyid Idriss shrine, said he believes political crisis in Baghdad invites Islamic State attacks.
“The terrorists saw this as an opportunity,” he said of a political crisis. “They have exploited these problems.”
Baghdad residents have faced bombings for more than a decade now and even grisly attacks leave many aspects of life in the capital unfazed. Even after the recent blasts, restaurants, shopping malls and markets remained full in areas sometimes only a block or two away from the attacks.
But unfazed doesn’t mean unafraid. Security precautions have become second nature, deeply entrenched in people’s minds and the shape of the city. At the Sayyid Idriss shrine, the mosque itself literally gleams with ceilings decorated with tiny mirror-work and arches covered in intricate tiles. Outside, the complex is encased in a dusty, concrete shell of fortification — ever since the height of sectarian violence following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, roads leading to the shrine have been blocked off with blast walls, gates and checkpoints.
A slight man with reading glasses hanging around his neck, Mohammed listed the precautions he takes — he avoids restaurants, crowded places, parks.
“It’s like I’m not living a full life.”