The sounds of cannon from American Apache helicopters woke Baghdad Friday morning. They circled the city firing into the streets where Sunni and Shiite gunmen were fighting. The Sunnis had attacked the Iraqi Health Ministry, which is controlled by Shiites loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army, is believed to be responsible for much of the sectarian violence in Baghdad. The fighting was just the latest battle as sectarian lines are drawn neighborhood by neighborhood in the Iraqi capital.
For the most part, Sunnis are concentrated on the west bank of the Tigris River, and Shiites on the east. But the Adhimiya district on the eastern shore of the river is the site of the holiest Sunni shrine in Baghdad. Sunnis living there have waged a relentless campaign to retain their hold over the area. The Health Ministry is located astride one of the main roads leading into Adhamiya. Shiite militiamen now man checkpoints around the ministry and nearby. Gun battles between the militiamen and Sunni militants are now a daily occurrence.
Driver Jasim Hussein, 31, lives in Sleikh, a mixed neighborhood sandwiched between Adhamiya and the health ministry. He takes the long way home these days to avoid the Iraqi commandos who've set up at the entrance to his district. He says the commandos are really shiite militiamen who operate as death squads.
"We can't use that road anymore," says Hussein. "Because there are checkpoints on the way, and they take you and kill you if they know you are going to Sleikh."
When Shiite militias attack his neighborhood, Hussein says, the police commandos at the checkpoints join in. He says the residents of Sleikh rely on American troops to stave off disaster in the area: "The Americans come to our neighborhood all the time," he says. "They even tell us to shoot the Shiite militia and the commandos when they come into the neighborhood... but don't shoot the Americans or the National Guard. We don't shoot them, we are fed up with death and killings. Every house has lost someone."
The latest weapon of choice for both sides in these urban battles is the mortar. Hussein says Shiite militias fire them at Sunni areas like Adhamiya and that the Shiite police and commandos stationed nearby join in.
A sergeant in the commandos, Ibrahim Nadir, acknowledges that they have joined Shiite militias attacking Sunni neighborhoods. And it eats at him. "I am a Shiite," he says. "I am a Shiite but I believe in God. What we are doing is wrong."
Across the river in the Shiite district of Kadhmiya it's the same story, but there it is Shiites who are targeted.
Housewife Hasna al-Roubai'e says she herds her four children into a room at the back of the house whenever she hears mortar rounds strike Adhamiya. She knows retaliation will certainly follow. "We've had enough of the mortars," she says. "Whenever Adhamiya is hit they hit back at Kadhimya. If they are hit with one mortar they hit us with three."
Kadhmiya is also home to a sacred shrine. But there it is a Shiite mosque. Like Adhamiya's Sunni mosque, it is also fiercely guarded. Al Roubai'e says the Shiite militiamen are welcome in her neighborhood because they protect residents when the police don't. She says Sunnis firing at Kadhimya strike at civilians not at militiamen. "Is all of Kadmiya militia?" She asks. "Are all the women and children militia? Why have things changed? We used to be like brothers and sisters us and the people in Adhamiya."
She blames the presence of American troops for the attacks, but says that even if the U.S. troops left, the two sides would still fight. "The U.S. should leave Iraq, then the Shiites and Sunnis can sit together and try to settle it, or have a civil war for a year or two, then they will reconcile."
U.S. military spokesmen confirm the increased use of mortars by the warring sides here. They also acknowledge that Baghdad is gradually being divided into distinct Sunni and Shiite enclaves.