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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 September 2005, 21:23 GMT 22:23 UK
'We have all become targets'
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Baghdad

Twenty-two year old Ali Hamid left his home in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya for the first time last week.

Iraqi women cry as Iraqi soldiers arrest family members in Tal Afar, northern Iraq
The latest attacks have raised fears of a civil war
He left behind his parents and 12 brothers and sisters. His destination was the capital, Baghdad, where he wanted to find work to support his family financially.

On Wednesday he joined hundreds of other unemployed Shias on al-Oruba square in the north of the city, hoping to pick up a job for the day in the construction industry.

The square is one of several well-known locations across the city for day-labourers to wait to be hired by employers.

But that is what also made it such an attractive target for a suicide bomber who drove a vehicle packed with explosives towards the crowd, lured some of them over and then detonated.

More than 100 people were killed and 162 injured.

Sectarian violence

It took almost 20 hours before Ali Hamid finally succumbed to his injuries in a local hospital.

We met members of his family at the hospital on Thursday - they had travelled from Nasiriya to pick up and bury his body.

"He was the best of my sons," said his father, Hamid Hussein.

"This is a big loss for our family."

Iraqi men cry outside the al-Kadhimiyah hospital morgue
Two men are overwhelmed by grief outside a morgue in Baghdad
Across Iraq many Shia families are grieving for their loved ones.

According to the health ministry, the total death toll from the wave of attacks which hit Baghdad on Wednesday now stand at 182 - the majority of them were Shias.

The reaction of Ali Hamid's family to what has happened is probably typical of many.

They are bitterly angry not only at their personal loss, but also because the Shia as a community are now being targeted so openly by extremists from amongst the minority Sunnis.

"We have all become targets," says Ali's father.

"They want to make a division between the Shias and the Sunnis."

Zarqawi's threats

These are particularly fearful times for the Shia community which for so long under Saddam Hussein was suppressed but now finally holds the reins of power in the country.

In a statement posted on a website on Wednesday, the Sunni militant group al-Qaeda in Iraq said it was responsible for the sudden, dramatic escalation in the violence, claiming it was in retaliation for a major military offensive against insurgents based near the border with Syria.

The statement also made it clear it had now begun a new nationwide campaign of bombings.

The Sunnis have hated the Shias for a long time. Certainly civil war will happen.
Bomb attacks survivor Ala Amorri
Later an audio tape was released purportedly of the group's leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in which he calls for war against the Shias of Iraq.

Members of the Shia community are now understandably nervous about joining large gatherings such as the religious festival in Karbala which starts next week, and which is expected to attract millions of pilgrims.

But as for whether the situation is likely to deteriorate still further into all-out civil war, as al-Qaeda in Iraq clearly wants, Ali's father has no doubts.

"There will not be civil war or sectarian division. Iraq is united, the people are stable and steadfast.

"These problems will end and people will see the good in Iraq with its oil and agriculture... and its ancient civilisation."

Referendum

Since the wave of violence began on Wednesday, Iraq's political and religious leaders, both Shia and Sunni, have been stressing a similar message that the population must remain united against the extremists.

But there is no denying that tit-for-tat killings by each community have been taking place for many months now.

Bodies are frequently dumped on the streets - many the victims of sectarian violence.

On Wednesday there was a clear example of retaliatory killings in a town just north of Baghdad.

Smoke rises in the air at the site of a suicide attack in Baghdad
Wednesday's attacks were the deadliest since the US-led invasion
Reliable sources told the BBC that 17 men dragged from their homes before daybreak and then shot dead were all Shia.

Just hours later, six Sunni Muslims were killed in a market in the same town.

"The Sunnis have hated the Shias for a long time," says Ala Amorri, another survivor of Wednesday's bomb attacks in Baghdad.

"Certainly civil war will happen."

Yet another survivor, Sabri Shanon Sultan, agrees.

"I expect it will happen because there is no unity and the government is not strong."

The situation in the country is certainly very delicate. Some observers believe a civil war is already under way.

That means there is now intense pressure on national leaders to ensure the minority Sunni community is drawn into the political process as quickly as possible, and in particular to ensure that it is satisfied with the draft constitution which is due to be put to a referendum in just four weeks' time.

That could go a long way towards marginalising the extremists.

The draft constitution was finalised on Wednesday with some amendments designed specifically to placate Sunni representatives on the drafting committee.

But it is still not clear whether the amendments will be enough to convince the Sunnis that the new Iraq which the now dominant Shias and Kurds want to create is one designed with the interests of the entire population in mind.


What is your reaction to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's statement? Do you think there is an increased climate of fear among Shias? Are you a Shia in Baghdad? Send us your comments and experiences.

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