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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 May 2006, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
None immune from Baghdad strife

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

I wonder what it is like to have to bargain over the telephone for the life of your husband, your wife, or your child.

Shia men protest in Baghdad over the bombing of Samarra's al-Askari shrine
Sectarian violence has been raging in recent months

It is hard to imagine the anguish, waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for the anonymous voice to name an impossible ransom, and waiting again, to see if a lower price for the life of your loved one is acceptable.

The family of the man who runs a big shop in the area where we live, may soon be finding out - if they are lucky.

A few days ago, a convoy of 4x4 vehicles pulled up outside the shop.

Armed men got out and went in. They seized him, and drove him away. Nobody knows if they were from a party militia, or off-duty policemen, or just well-organised gangsters.

It is the kind of random thing that happens probably dozens of times a day here. Unless it is somebody very prominent, it does not even get reported.

The family will now be praying that the phone does ring.

The cousin of a good friend of mine - let's call him Adnan - was among the lucky ones. His wife and child were kidnapped. The phone did eventually ring.

The demand was for a million dollars. Adnan does not have that kind of money. But he did manage to raise $100,000, and they eventually settled for that.

Adnan got his family back, at a price, and he was lucky in that as well.

Silence

The cousin of someone who works with us here was kidnapped six weeks ago. A ransom was agreed over the phone. When a relative went to deliver the money, he was also robbed at gunpoint of his own car, mobile and cash.

The hostage has not been freed. There is just silence.

There is a huge overlap too, between sectarian provocation or revenge killings, and what we, for want of a better word, call the insurgency
And the longer the silence, the greater the chance that the kidnap victim might turn up along with the dozens of bodies found on an average day here, scattered around different parts of town.

Often, they have been bound and blindfolded, and tortured, before being shot, almost certainly the victims of blind sectarian revenge.

There is clearly a big overlap between the purely criminal, and the sectarian.

One local shop owner who was ransomed recently, was released after the usual haggling process. But his captors told him:

"You're lucky you're not a Sunni. If you had been, we'd have killed you as well."

There is a huge overlap too, between sectarian provocation or revenge killings, and what we, for want of a better word, call the insurgency.

'Corrosive tide'

Take the village, to the north of Baghdad, from which another of our co-workers comes.

Map of Iraq
It is a Shia village, but it is in a largely Sunni area. Just last week, seven of the villagers, on their way to work in the provincial capital, were pulled out of their minibus and shot dead - it is presumed, by Sunni insurgents.

Just a few days later, another three, on their way home, were also stopped and shot dead in their car.

So just in that one village, 41 children are now abruptly left without fathers. In that particular village, some very wise religious and tribal leaders have restrained people from seeking revenge. But other areas have not been so lucky - the bodies of random victims turn up every day.

It is a fair bet that every Iraqi you meet has similar stories, from personal experience. Nobody is exempt.

Even the new vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, who is a Sunni, has lost both a brother and a sister, killed in separate shooting attacks in the past few weeks. The other vice-president, Adel Abdul Mehdi, who is a Shia, also lost a brother, kidnapped and murdered.

As much as anything, it is the corrosive tide of sectarianism that has come in so fast over the past three months, which has made many ordinary Iraqis feel that the fabric of their society is coming apart.

Daunting challenge

Add to that, the rampant criminality, the depredations of sectarian militias sometimes operating under official cover, massive corruption in government - especially in the crucial oil sector.

Along with the implacable hard core of the Sunni-based insurgency and the sometimes aggravating presence of the American and other foreign forces, and it is not surprising that many feel the country is descending into a period of strife, if not outright civil war, that could run for years.

The big test in the hard times that lie ahead, is whether Iraqis really do feel Iraqi
This is the daunting challenge that faces the long-overdue national unity government when it struggles to its feet.

Even hopeful western diplomats who have been busy encouraging its formation, admit it may be five or 10 years before things really come right.

If they go wrong, the country will fragment into its component parts, which may be more of a problem than a solution.

The big test in the hard times that lie ahead, is whether Iraqis really do feel Iraqi, or whether they turn out to be Shias, Sunnis, Kurds or whatever, first.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 20 May, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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