latimes.com


Mysterious killings spread panic in Iraq

Iraqis say a postelection political deadlock has given free rein to terrorists, but no one knows who they are or how they choose their victims.

By Usama Redha and Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times

2:00 PM PDT, August 30, 2010

Reporting from Baghdad

It has been a month now and still there are no answers. There is just a father gripping the photographs of his son.

In one, 21-year-old Ali Mohammed Fakher is in Japan, dressed in his white judo robe; in another, he's on a boat in Turkey with his coach and teammates. Fakher had gone further than any of his family imagined, rising from the rough streets of west Baghdad to become the star player on Iraq's national judo team.

On the day before he was to leave Iraq to train for tournaments, he was shot to death as he walked down the main street of his neighborhood. State television broadcast video of his family and supporters weeping as they carried his coffin.

"The hero is gone!" one mourner cried in the street. "The bad men have killed him."

But like other killings and assassinations in a wave of violence that has crept up on Iraq during an unnerving political stalemate, no one really knows who the "bad men" are. Was Fakher killed by a Sunni Arab insurgent group like Al Qaeda in Iraq, or a Shiite Muslim militia like the one that once controlled the neighborhood, or did the attack stem from a personal feud?

Iraqis are left muttering one word, vague yet ominous: Terrorists, the television announcer intoned about Fakher's killers. Terrorism, police recorded in their books. It was terrorists, his parents say.

Fakher's killing is a chilling echo of the early years after the U.S.-led invasion, a time when people were gunned down without explanation or logic and killers faded into the woodwork. The stealthy decimation of communities caused a ripple effect, sowing dissension and discrediting the workings of the new state and the U.S military, until the deluge of sectarian bombings and killings tipped the country into civil war.

U.S. military and civilian officials have hailed Iraq's step back from the abyss since 2008 and the tentative return of normality, with a capable army and police force and a major drop in violence.

But as the U.S. ends combat operations in the country and politicians seem unable to break a deadlock over forming a new government nearly six months after national elections, every attack rattles the general population and fans the panic that the "bad men," the "terrorists," are back.

Dozens of security officers, ministry officials, judges and clerics have been killed or wounded this year. From March through the end of June, at least 354 people across Iraq died from explosives planted on their cars.

"2010 is worse than 2008 and 2009. We hope and pray to God that security will improve," said Ghazi Abdul Aziz Essa, director-general of Baghdad's main power plant.

He bristles at the notion that he and others in his ministry aren't in danger. "Of course there is a threat," he said, adding he has again taken to switching cars to throw off would-be hit men.

Some Iraqis whisper that anyone can be killed now because no one is in charge, no questions will be asked, the evidence will be long gone by the time a government is finally in place. People can use the cover of political deadlock to make power plays and settle personal scores.

"Of course this situation is because the government has not been formed," said Kamil Kanjar, head of the local council in Baghdad's Sadr City district. "Probably the security forces are not obeying instructions and orders in a proper way because they feel there is no government."

U.S. military officers suspect at least a portion of the violence is tied to efforts to influence the shape of the next government. They caution that the targeted killings and assassinations are driven by factors that transcend strict sectarian hatreds.

"It's very hard to attribute some of those assassinations," said Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, one of the deputy commanding generals for Baghdad. "It could be political, could be tribal, could be economic; it could be criminal."

Fear grips officials and rank-and-file state employees in Iraq, where every day brings news of a new death or botched attack. Last week, a member of the Sadr City council opened his door and was shot dead by two men just 100 yards from parked Iraqi army Humvees and 200 yards from a police checkpoint.

Each killing and ambush resonates, spreading panic and destroying people's faith that the future will be better.

Ali Fakher's father, Mohammed, weeps readily. He remembers how his son was always gifted. He started judo when he was 11, shortly after the family moved to Shula, a Shiite neighborhood in west Baghdad. Agile and clever, he could always tackle the bigger boys wrestling on the street. His older brother often ended up crying to his parents after Ali, three years younger, routinely pinned him.

Mohammed recalls his son's last day alive. Ali said he might stay overnight by the sports club because his team was leaving early the next day, and Mohammed wished him a safe trip, like he always did.

His son was walking down the street when a man, his face covered by a head scarf, rode up on a motorcycle and fired at Ali's head and chest. The young man lifted his hand to ward off the bullets, and three went through it.

"Ali became well known," his father said, lingering over his son's image. "For that he was killed."

His family said Ali had recently talked about buying a gun because he was worried he might be targeted. His mother, Umm Ali, began crying, saying some people might have been jealous. But asked who would have done it, both parents had the same answer: terrorists.

"Nowadays there is no stability in this country," Mohammed said. "If the government was formed, it would provide security and generally this would not have happened.'

He worries for his three remaining sons. "I don't want my sons to go out," he says. "If I had money, I would send them abroad. But I don't have the means."

Outside, a few boys run near where Ali Fakher slumped to the ground. Laughing, they play with water guns, pointing them at one another's heads in their own miniature version of Baghdad's turbulent season.