Baghdad residents persevere as Islamic State advances

An Iraqi police officer cleans up blood and debris after a car bombing in Baghdad. Seventeen vehicles were incinerated in the deadly attack.
An Iraqi police officer cleans up blood and debris after a car bombing in Baghdad. Seventeen vehicles were incinerated in the deadly attack.
(David Zucchino / Los Angeles Times)

The looming advance of Islamic State fighters west of Baghdad and the persistent drumbeat of suicide car bombings here have imparted a sense of menace and foreboding in the Iraqi capital.

But the daily pulse of city life continues unabated along Baghdad’s congested streets. Traffic hums and snarls, street vendors hawk fresh fruits and supermarkets are filled with shoppers. Schools are open, and commuters honk and fume as they try to get to work.

Iraqis acknowledge they feel uncertain and afraid, but that’s nothing new in the 11 years since U.S.-led forces toppled the brutally efficient regime of Saddam Hussein. Islamic State’s military advance is merely the latest of many threats to the Iraqi capital and its populace.

“It seems we’re always in a state of crisis,” said Abu Ali Zaidalazahiri, a burly Shiite Muslim company manager who was grabbing a few items at the Al-Warda grocery in the Karada neighborhood at evening rush hour. “Bombings, kidnappings, thieves, gangsters — this has been our life for a long time.”

Like many Iraqis interviewed in shops and on streets over the weekend, Zaidalazahiri said security was better before U.S. combat forces left Iraq in December 2011. But he and others said they don’t want U.S. troops back in Iraq. They spin endless conspiracy theories about the U.S. secretly manipulating events behind the scenes to achieve the very thing President Obama says he wants to avoid.

Despite some media depictions of Baghdad as a city under siege — weekend violence killed more than 80 people here and elsewhere in Iraq — residents say they are confident that sectarian militias, most of them Shiite Muslim, and even the beleaguered Iraqi army will prevent Islamic State militants from seizing the capital.

“Daesh will never take Baghdad,” said Habib Mohammed, a Shiite TV commentator, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “They took the weakest parts of the country in the north and west, but Baghdad is different. We have faith in the militias — and maybe even in some of the army.”

Some Iraqis can even joke about Islamic State, ridiculing the bearded militants and their slick videos. “State of Superstition,” a satiric sitcom on a government-run TV station, lampoons the group.

Iraqis have learned to use laughter to ease tensions from living with constant strife and uncertainty, said Abu Noor, 44, a Sunni Muslim salesman who served a year in the army during the Hussein era. “There are smiles on our faces, but inside our hearts, there is tragedy,” Noor said.

Even holidays are affected. Normally, Zaidalazahiri said, he takes his family on outings for the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha. This year, he said, no one left the house.

Islamic State has captured roughly a third of the country, routing the army. Soldiers shed their uniforms and deserted as entire units collapsed, despite years of U.S.-led training. Commanders either disappeared or failed to provide supplies and ammunition to their men.

“They lost their fighting spirit, and without spirit, you can’t fight,” Zaidalazahiri said of the army.

In recent days, the militants have solidified their hold on Sunni Muslim-dominated Anbar province, on Baghdad’s western shoulder. Provincial officials on Saturday asked the U.S. to send in combat troops, a request that has not been made by the government in Baghdad.

Sunday morning, the provincial police chief, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Sadak, was killed by a roadside bomb while traveling in a convoy north of Ramadi, Anbar’s capital. Prime Minister Haider Abadi called Sadak, a Sunni who took the post only in July, a patriot “who sacrificed himself and his blood to defend his country.”

The militants seem to be trying to make security in the capital so untenable that residents lose confidence in Abadi’s U.S.-backed government. They also seek to weaken the resolve of the army units and militia defending the capital.

The United States has launched nearly 300 airstrikes in Iraq since Aug. 8 in an effort to push back Islamic State advances and embolden Iraqi security forces.

On Sunday, a bombing attack on a compound housing Kurdish security and intelligence forces in the eastern province of Diyala killed at least 58 people and wounded at least 107, Iraqi officials told reporters. A suicide bomber detonated an explosives vest at the entrance to the compound, in the village of Qara Taba, followed by two car bombs.

Islamic State took responsibility for the triple attack in a Twitter message, claiming that the three suicide bombers were non-Iraqi Islamic extremists.

In Baghdad on Saturday night, three car bombs exploded in Shiite neighborhoods. In a Twitter message Sunday, Islamic State claimed responsibility for two of the bombings, both suicide attacks. The group boasted that it was able to set off the explosions despite a heightened security alert.

At the scene of one bombing, in the Shula neighborhood, a pickup truck crammed with about 120 pounds of explosives blew up and left a huge black crater in the street next to a police checkpoint. At least eight civilians were killed and 24 wounded. A second car bomb aimed at snarled traffic nearby killed 17 people and wounded 28.

A police officer used a fire hose Sunday morning to wash away blood and debris next to the scorched remains of 17 vehicles incinerated in the blast. On a nearby blast wall, a fresh poster was added to others commemorating the dead — among them this time, two parents and two children, ages 6 and 12.

“There were human beings in those vehicles — women and children,” a lieutenant with the state security service at one bombing site said, speaking in English he said he learned from U.S. military trainers. “This is terrorism straight from Daesh.”

The lieutenant, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to reporters, said Islamic State fighters operate throughout the city, even in Shiite neighborhoods such as Shula. But while they can set off car bombs and carry out killings, he said, they are not capable of overrunning Baghdad.

“With every car bomb, they try to terrify the people, but it just angers them and motivates them,” the lieutenant said, adding that the attacks prompt more support and recruits for the Shiite militias that dominate large sections of Baghdad.

Officials at U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for Iraq, have issued assurances that the capital is militarily secure. On Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters, “Iraqi security forces are in full control of Baghdad.”

But Sunday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. military recently deployed Apache helicopters to prevent Iraqi forces from being overrun by an Islamic State attack just 15 miles from Baghdad International Airport.

If the militants had broken through Iraqi security lines, Dempsey told ABC’s “This Week” news program, “it was a straight shot to the airport.”

Dempsey added: “We’re not going to allow that. We need that airport.”

For Majid Daoud, who sells baby items at his Paradise Store in the Karada neighborhood, the thought of Islamic State capturing Baghdad is inconceivable.

Inshallah, the militias will stop them,” said Daoud, a Shiite. “Daesh is the enemy of everyone, not just the Shia people.”

His business has been down since this summer, when advances elsewhere by Islamic State scared off some customers, Daoud said. But it’s not as bad as 2006 and 2007, when Shiites and Sunnis fought a bloody sectarian war during the U.S. occupation. Daoud had to close his shop for nearly three years, and an employee was kidnapped for ransom.

He’s taking no chances these days. Sitting at his checkout counter, Daoud opened a drawer and pulled out a loaded pistol.

“There is danger all around,” he said.

At the register, Walaa Yusef paid for clothing for her 2-year-old granddaughter, Lara, who was crying in her arms. Yusef and three female relatives, all dressed in black abayas, had driven from their home in a nearby neighborhood for baby supplies not available there.

“Really, it’s not safe to leave the house, but there are things we must have,” Yusef said.

Their purchases completed, the four women hurried from the store, eager to get safely home.

“We are afraid, of course,” Yusef said. “Anything can happen.”

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