Sunni and Shia share grief at doctor's murder

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

27 March 2004

Over the suburban Baghdad street in which Dr Hazem al-Ani lived and died hangs a black cotton banner.

"All the Ghazalia residents, both Sunni and Shia, consider his death a crime," it says.

There's no doubt about the crime. Five evenings ago, two cars pulled up in Kaat Abla Street, five men in each. One man got out of each car and entered the doctor's surgery. It was 10 past eight. They walked into the surgery, patients so they claimed. And when the much-loved doctor looked up to greet them, they shot him dead.

"He was still sitting in his chair behind his desk," Dr al-Ani's brother, Hashem, said. "He had three bullets fired into his face, one into his chest. There was blood. He didn't cry out, but his family were next door and they heard the shots. Some of the neighbours here had been suspicious of the cars, one of which parked at one end of the street. They got guns and one man fired 30 bullets at one of the cars, but they got away. It is a great tragedy."

But then we come back to that banner flapping in the mid-day heat. Why does it say "Sunni and Shia"? Is there any reason to doubt that the Muslims of Ghazalia would not share their common grief at the doctor's murder? Both Sunni and Shia trusted him and were his patients. If they had no money, he would treat them free of charge. Educated at the Iraqi College of Medicine, Dr Hazem al-Ani was appointed assistant professor at the college on graduation but objected to the Baathist control of the university and was jailed in the Abu Ghraib prison for three years before being ordered to the Iran-Iraq war front as a military doctor in 1982. "He never talked about his suffering," Hashem says. So this was no friend of Saddam. Dr al-Ani was a Sunni.

He could not have failed to notice the brand-new Husseiniya mosque that the Shias were building on a vacant lot just across the road from his home. Nor could he have slept through the thunderous explosion which destroyed much of the unfinished mosque 10 days before his death. Hashem explains quietly that he and his brother gave 250,000 Iraqi dinars (£100) towards its repair. Only the Americans want a civil war, Hashem insists.

Dr al-Ani left a wife, a son called Soheil and three daughters - Maryam, Sara and Dua'a - and around the reception room of his brother's home yesterday, close relatives and distant cousins came to pay their respects. There was newly cooked meat and fresh juice and scalding cups of tea and much talk of the close relationship between Shia and Sunni in Ghazzalia. As the doctor's cousin, Raqid, said, the family is from the Dulaimi tribe which includes both Sunni and Shia. Hashem's wife is a Shia. "Only the Americans want a civil war here," he repeated. Soheil, the murdered doctor's son, nodded his agreement.

"There was a rumour in the street that the doctor was responsible for the explosion at the mosque," Raqid says. "Of course, this was untrue. I am sure that the same person who blew up the mosque was responsible for the killing of Hazem. Do you know, the mosque blew up at 1.55 at night and right after it two American aircraft could be heard. One of them flew over my home. Just before the explosion, four American Humvees were outside the building. This was a plot by the Iranian secret service and the Israeli secret service."

The PLOT - it needs to be in capital letters - exists in most Iraqi narratives these days. Iranian, I ask? Israeli? "We have heard that the Iranians helped to finance the mosque across the road," Raqid says. "You have to see this in the context of the presence of the US troops. The Americans don't want this country to be stable. So they let these criminals target good people like the doctor, people who are active in society, people who might be able to play a role in the future of Iraq. These men want to make ethnic problems, they want to make a civil war - but we refuse to have a civil war."

Hashem interrupts: "My wife is a Shia, we have cousins who are Shia in the south of Iraq, we intermarry. How could we have a civil war? My brother treated both Sunni and Shia and he was a good man. We had a very big funeral and we had men to protect us with guns and the Americans said we couldn't have this protection. We asked them to protect us and an officer said: 'We can only protect ourselves'."

What should we think about this?" Dr al-Ani was a fluent English speaker who would, so the neighbours told us, open his clinic at his home at any hour of the day or night. "Sometimes our home would look like a hospital," Soheil said. There was, of course, no comment from the occupation authorities after the murder. They announced two American deaths on the day of Dr al-Ani's murder. Dr al-Ani was not on their casualty list. He was an Iraqi.