AFP: Baghdad residents are gripped by fear over the rumoured return of “the Shiite butcher,” a militant who earned his gruesome nickname by slaughtering dozens of Sunnis in the Iraqi capital.
by Sammy Ketz
BAGHDAD, August 20, 2010 (AFP) – Baghdad residents are gripped by fear over the rumoured return of “the Shiite butcher,” a militant who earned his gruesome nickname by slaughtering dozens of Sunnis in the Iraqi capital.
While officials insist Ismail al-Lami, who goes by the noms de guerre Hajj Ismail and Abu Dira (father of the shield in Arabic), has not come back to the sprawling Shiite neighbourhood of Sadr City, their assurances have done little to allay people’s concerns.
“Before the start of Ramadan (on August 11), we heard that Hajj Ismail had returned from Iran,” Abu Qassim, a 54-year-old civil servant and Sadr City resident, told AFP.
“He is not living in his old home in sector 74 (of Sadr City), but what I am certain of is that he is here. In any case, he is not welcome.”
Lami was a senior leader in the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that drew widespread support in Sadr City before being routed two years ago and laying down its arms. Lami fled to Iran in 2008.
Sunni Muslims in Baghdad dubbed Lami “the Shiite Zarqawi”, referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the now-dead leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq who violently targeted Shiites across the country.
Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim Atta said rumours of Lami’s reappearance are “completely false.”
And while no one claims to have seen him personally, rumours in Iraq spread and gain credence quickly, as in much of the Middle East, with many residents assuredly reporting that he had been spotted by friends or neighbours.
His rumoured return to the capital recalls, for many, the brutal sectarian conflict in 2006 and 2007 that left tens of thousands dead and forcibly segregated many Baghdad districts into wholly Sunni or Shiite enclaves.
“I can assure you that 60 percent of the residents of Sadr City do not want a return to confessional violence,” said Abu Ali, a 70-year-old retiree.
“They just want peace.”
It was during that period that Lami, who is said to be in his 40s with a round face and short black beard, distinguished himself in the murder of dozens of Sunnis, swearing to rid the capital of them.
According to Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic-language newspaper which cited an unnamed security source, Lami dropped out of school as a youth and began selling fish in Sadr City’s Mraidi market.
He obtained the rank of sergeant in now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s army but deserted in 2000, before re-appearing in Sadr City following the US-led invasion of 2003.
Starting out as a gangster who looted warehouses in the chaos that erupted following the ouster of Saddam, Lami soon moved on to murdering members of the dictator’s Baath Party, before targeting soldiers and, finally, Sunnis.
During the post-invasion unrest, he also took on the name Abu Haidar (father of Haidar), after his son who lost an arm during clashes with the US army.
This is not the first time his return has been claimed — similar suggestions were made in November 2008.
To many residents of Sadr City, an apparent uptick in the number of rocket attacks into the Green Zone, Baghdad’s heavily-fortified central district that is home to foreign embassies and some government buildings, is evidence enough that “the Shiite butcher” is back.
Fifteen mortar attacks, or “indirect fire” in US military parlance, were carried out in Baghdad in the past six weeks, according to John Drake, an analyst for private security firm AKE, who said the majority of mortar attacks target the Green Zone, though some fall short.
By comparison, the total for the previous 27 weeks of the year was 16.
A US military spokesman, meanwhile, said the Green Zone had suffered “an IDF (indirect fire) attack roughly every other week this year” but declined to give details on whether any trends had emerged.
“Rockets are being fired from here again,” said Abu Qassim, the civil servant who lives in Sadr City.
“Peace had returned and now, with him (Lami), the trouble and the killings will re-commence.”
Whether or not he has returned, the Sadrist movement loyal to the cleric has publicly forsworn violence and says that those who target Iraqis of any creed are unwelcome.
For Baghdad’s Sunnis, the rumours revive painful memories.
“Abu Dira is no different from other terrorists like Zarqawi,” said Omar al-Bayati, a 35-year-old civil servant in the predominantly Sunni district of Adhamiyah.
“The state must keep tabs on him, try him, and hang him in Tharir Square to avenge all those who he killed.”