BAGHDAD — “Allah, please make our army victorious,” rang out the despairing voice of a worshipper making his way through a crowd to reach the ornate enclosure of the Baghdad tomb of a revered Shiite imam. Others in the crystal and marble mosque somberly read from the Quran or tearfully recited supplications.
“We pray for the safety of Iraq and Baghdad,” said Mohammed Hashem al-Maliki, a Shiite, squatting on the marble plaza outside the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kazim in northern Baghdad. “I live close by, and I tell you I have not seen people this sad or worried in a long time,” the 51-year-old said as his 10-year-old daughter, Zeinab, listened somberly.
While the Iraqi capital is not under any immediate threat of falling to the Sunni militants who have captured a wide swath of the country’s north and west, battlefield setbacks and the conflict’s growing sectarian slant is turning this city of 7 million into an anxiety-filled place waiting for disaster to happen.
Traffic is nowhere near its normal congestion. Many stores are shuttered and those that are open are doing little business in a city where streets empty hours before a 10 p.m. curfew kicks in. Arriving international and domestic flights are half empty, while outgoing flights to the relatively safe Kurdish cities of Irbil and Suleimaniya are booked solid through late July as those who can flee.
The number of army and police checkpoints has grown, snarling traffic. Pickup trucks loaded with Shiite militiamen roam the city, including in Sunni and mixed areas, chanting religious slogans. A climate of war reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s days permeates state-run television broadcasts dominated by nationalist songs, video clips of army and police forces in action and reruns of speeches by Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister.