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Iraq's capital lives in fear, expects the worst

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, June 22 2014 1:10 p.m. MDT

In this photo taken on June 17, 2014, people shop around at a market in Baghdad, Iraq. While the Iraqi capital is not under any immediate threat of falling to the Sunni militants who have captured a wide swath of the country's north and west, battlefield setbacks and the conflict's growing sectarian slant is turning this city of 7 million into an anxiety-filled place waiting for disaster to happen.

Karim Kadim, Associated Press

BAGHDAD — "Allah, please make our army victorious," rang out the despairing voice of a worshipper making his way through a crowd to reach the ornate enclosure of the Baghdad tomb of a revered Shiite imam. Others in the crystal and marble mosque somberly read from the Quran or tearfully recited supplications.

"We pray for the safety of Iraq and Baghdad," said Mohammed Hashem al-Maliki, a Shiite, squatting on the marble plaza outside the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kazim in northern Baghdad. "I live close by, and I tell you I have not seen people this sad or worried in a long time," the 51-year-old said as his 10-year-old daughter, Zeinab, listened somberly.

While the Iraqi capital is not under any immediate threat of falling to the Sunni militants who have captured a wide swath of the country's north and west, battlefield setbacks and the conflict's growing sectarian slant is turning this city of 7 million into an anxiety-filled place waiting for disaster to happen.

Traffic is nowhere near its normal congestion. Many stores are shuttered and those that are open are doing little business in a city where streets empty hours before a 10 p.m. curfew kicks in. Arriving international and domestic flights are half empty, while outgoing flights to the relatively safe Kurdish cities of Irbil and Suleimaniya are booked solid through late July as those who can flee.

The number of army and police checkpoints has grown, snarling traffic. Pickup trucks loaded with Shiite militiamen roam the city, including in Sunni and mixed areas, chanting religious slogans. A climate of war reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's days permeates state-run television broadcasts dominated by nationalist songs, video clips of army and police forces in action and reruns of speeches by Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister.

Interviews with Iraqis vowing to fight or declaring their readiness to die for Iraq are daily fare, along with footage showing young volunteers at signup centers or in trucks being ferried to army camps.

The Iraqi capital has seen little respite from violence for more than three decades, from the ruinous 1980-88 war with Iran, the first Gulf War over Kuwait in 1991, to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and subsequent years of turmoil that peaked in 2006 and 2007, with Sunni-Shiite bloodletting that left tens of thousands killed and altered the longstanding sectarian balance, turning Baghdad into a predominantly Shiite city.

Baghdadis, Sunnis and Shiites alike, are renowned for their resilience, but they fear the threat posed by the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, whose interpretation of Islamic Shariah law is similar in its harshness to the Moghul hordes that sacked the city in the 13th century, turning, tradition says, the water of the Tigris red with the blood of its slaughtered residents and black with the ink of the thousands of books they threw into the river.

Shiites fear they will be massacred if the Sunni militants take the city or even parts of it, while Baghdad's Sunni residents worry the Shiite militiamen, with the full acquiescence of the Shiite-led government, will target them in reprisal attacks if the Islamic State continues its battlefield successes.

"They are coming to destroy life and humanity," al-Maliki, the worshipper at the Imam al-Kazim shrine, said of the Sunni militants.

A government employee who was injured in a 2004 blast blamed on Sunni militants in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, he was one of several hundred Shiites seeking solace and peace at the shrine one recent evening. Around him in the plaza, families sat in circles as their children energetically ran about as the day's searing heat finally relented.

But reminders of the dark days that may be ahead were only a stone's throw away.

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