Iraqi forces searched homes in Sunni Muslim-dominated areas in Baghdad as they prepared to defend the capital from a possible attack by an al-Qaeda breakaway group that captured the biggest city in the north.
Army and security forces looked for weapons yesterday and made residents sign papers confirming they don’t belong to armed groups or are providing any with shelter. Military spokesman Qassim Ata said yesterday that the government was conducting pre-emptive operations in the capital.
The measures come after Sunni militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant overran army forces in the north last week to seize the city of Mosul and other towns, moving closer to the capital. Shiites who lead the government called on citizens able to bear arms to prepare to defend their cities, further raising the possibility of a sectarian civil war in OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer.
“Iraqi armed forces are in an extreme state of alert and fully ready to defend Baghdad against any aggression from ISIL or any other armed group,” Army Lieutenant Salem al-Rubaye said in an interview yesterday. “We have military plans and highly-trained forces ready to defend Baghdad, and we shall annihilate any armed group that tries to attack the capital.”
Iraqi forces reinforced their deployment with armored and military vehicles and erected checkpoints on main streets and bridges in Baghdad, clogging traffic. Residents in the capital stocked up on food and medicine.
Maysoon Mahdi, a 55-year-old teacher, said she spent 400,000 dinars ($332) to buy items including canned food.
“I also bought boxes of drinking water bottles, cooking gas cannisters and medicines to make sure we don’t have any shortage in case Baghdad comes under attack,” she said in an interview.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, pledged to build an army of volunteers to repel the Sunni militants. He urged citizens to be ready to “shoulder the burden” and join the fight against ISIL.
Military aircraft pummeled the positions of Sunni Muslim insurgents who have captured large chunks of territory north of Baghdad, Ata, the military spokesman, said yesterday.
“What happened in Mosul was an exception that will never be repeated in Baghdad, and our forces are currently battling to regain all the regions overtaken by ISIL,” al-Rubaye said.
The advance of ISIL, which is also fighting in Syria’s civil war, has been abetted by some Sunni factions of ousted Sunni President Saddam Hussein’s former Baathist regime and tribal groups disillusioned with the Shiite-led government.
Mahmoud Saleem, who works in a money exchange shop in Mosul, praised the armed men who residents say have now become a common sight in the northern city.
“The gunmen are dealing with people better than the army used to do,” he said. “People feel more relieved than before. We were returning home early before as the army was tightening its grip on the people’s movement.”
ISIL has benefited from similar grievances voiced by many among Iraq’s minority Sunni population against the Shiite-led government as the militant group tried to secure a base inside Iraq.
Sunnis, a majority in Anbar province west of Baghdad and in areas north of the capital, have felt marginalized under Maliki. Shiites, who have political and religious ties to Iran, are the majority in the south.
Khalid Habib, 35, a taxi driver from Mosul, said militants have take charge of the distribution of fuel and cooking gas. “They are protecting banks, universities, schools and government offices,” he said. “Food is available in the markets. There is no shortage.”