Middle East

The quandary of reporting in 'sectarian' Iraq

Predominantly Shia suburb of Kazimiyah, Baghdad (picture by Ahmed Maher) Image copyright Ahmed Maher
Image caption Shia-Sunni tensions are rising again amid the offensive against IS

Six years after the sectarian war between the Shia and Sunni communities in Iraq subsided, Iraqis still sharply disagree over how this particular chapter of the country's recent history should be told to the outside world.

Casual chats with Iraqi friends from both communities reveal a consensus that foreign reporting might have actually contributed to making sectarianism worse.

This is because each side strongly believes the story should be reported from their own particular perspective.

Sectarian language and feelings of victimisation are ever-present in conversations, highlighting the depth to which inter-religious hostility has taken root.

While reporting from Iraq in the past few weeks, any discussion about facts, neutrality and ethical journalism I had could not overcome deeply ingrained suspicions of one-sidedness, no matter how unfounded.

'Kill him!'

It's a dilemma I experienced first-hand while covering the war against the so-called Islamic State (IS).

The jihadist group in Iraq is predominantly made up of Sunni Iraqis alongside Sunnis from other Arab states and Western converts.

Image copyright Ahmed Maher
Image caption Tensions are high on the edge of Tikrit, where Shia militia and Iraqi troops are fighting to retake the city

IS is fighting a huge force of Shia volunteers and militiamen, allied with the remnants of the Iraqi army, which collapsed in the face of the IS onslaught last summer.

Embedded with one of the militia near the frontline outside Tikrit, my reporting in English went unremarked by the fighters around me who did not understand - but when I switched to Arabic, the response was immediate.

"You cannot say the 'so-called Islamic State'. You can only say 'terrorist Daesh'," an angry militia leader interrupted my reporting, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

"These are Sunni terrorists who slaughtered hundreds of fellow Shia. We are the followers of Imam Ali. They are not Muslims and I swear to God that we will crush them and their sympathisers and supporters," he fumed.

Another fierce-looking commander threatened to "teach me the true meaning of the Islamic State", while fighters started cocking their guns amid shouts of "kill him, kill him" and "spy correspondent" - until our escorts managed to defuse the situation.

Rumour and fear

A heightened sense of sectarianism is one of the outcomes of the war against IS.

IS has seized control of large swathes of Iraq since January 2014 with the support of Sunni insurgents who accuse successive Shia-led governments in Baghdad of discrimination and marginalisation.

The overwhelming majority of Sunni Iraqis I spoke to reject the ideology and the unyielding doctrines imposed by IS in its territories.

Image copyright Ahmed Maher
Image caption 'No For Sectarianism' poster outside Ministry of Defence in Baghdad

But they are alarmed by the Shia religious slogans and flags on the battlefield, especially in the "liberated" Sunni cities.

Allegations of torture, revenge killings and arson at the hands of Shia militiamen have fuelled resentment. Most of the claims cannot be independently verified.

"I have seen videos circulating on social media showing serious human rights violations against Sunnis in Salahuddin [province]. I can show it to you to produce a strong piece," one Sunni man told me.

Although I reassured him that I had highlighted these allegations in my reports and reminded him of the problems with verification, my acquaintance remained unconvinced.

I have tried in vain to find families from the Sunni community who can speak openly - even anonymously - about alleged atrocities committed by Shia militiamen.

"No-one dares to speak to the media. The price is so high; it could be their lives," the BBC's local producer told me.


Iraqis have grown weary of sectarianism. Thousands were killed and millions forced from their homes during the bloody civil war in 2006-2007.

The war on IS has contributed to an ever-growing refugee crisis and seen the exodus of a large number of minorities.

Bombings still take place in in Iraq with alarming frequency. The attackers' weapon of choice is the car bomb, and devices can go off in a dozen locations in Baghdad and across the country within just a few hours.

"Many Iraqis were planning their futures after the end of the civil war in the expectation that the violence would recede and that life would soon settle into a state of normality," said Maher Foud, the pastor of the Baptist Church in Baghdad.

"The situation has worsened with the advent of IS, aside from the never-ending terrorist attacks."