On one side of a bombed out street in Duloaiya, a black flag marks the territory of Islamic State. On the other, Shiite militia snipers perch on the roof of a school, their sights trained on the Sunni extremists.
As fighting rages in the frontline town, ordinary Iraqis are bridging the sectarian divide to survive and preserve what’s left of their fraying nation. After the town’s main bridge was destroyed in June, the mostly Sunni residents were left scavenging for food, only for Shiites from the town opposite to organize aid and deliver it by boat.
“The government is doing nothing for our brothers across the river,” Thu al-Faqar, one volunteer from the Shiite town of Balad, said last week. “So we decided, to open a center for donation from Iraqi citizens.”
Islamic State’s drive to carve out a self-styled caliphate in northern Iraq led to renewed predictions of the country’s breakup. Yet even as Sunni and Shiite militias tear into each other in towns like Duloaiya, 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Baghdad, evidence suggests old bonds between communities can endure, united by what they see as a political vacuum.
So far, the center has raised about $150,000 to buy food, ammunition, medicine and fuel for Duloaiya residents, according to Faqar. Every day, river barges are loaded with supplies and taken across the Tigris, which divides Sunni and Shiite communities. Whenever the fighting subsides, crowds gather on the river’s banks looking for safe passage.
On the Sunni side, Sheikh Moloud al-Jabouri, 55, who served as an officer under former leader Saddam Hussein, helped Faqar and other volunteers unload the barge.
“Balad’s people are our brothers,” he said. “We know they are Shiites, but even though their militias are fighting against ours we must help each other.”
Duloaiya’s police commander, Col. Qindeel Khaleel, explained that the local government has ceased to function in the town, and that the Iraqi military has fled, leaving the fighting on the government side to Iranian-backed militias.
“No one in the government is answering our requests anymore,” he said.
As he finished speaking, a mortar round landed nearby, a regular occurrence as both sides shell each other. Nobody among the crowds on the river bank flinched.
Iraq’s Shiite majority came to power following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which removed the mostly Sunni leadership of Saddam. Sunnis have accused successive Shiite governments of excluding them from power, creating discontent that Islamic State has tapped into when they started seizing territory in northern and western Iraq in June.
More than 24,000 civilians were killed or injured in fighting in Iraq during the first eight months of this year, according to the United Nations, a scale of violence not seen since the country’s 2006-2007 civil war.
The breakdown of government control will have a long- lasting impact on Iraqi society, said Liam Anderson, professor of politics at Wright State University in Ohio and coauthor of the 2005 book “The Future of Iraq, Dictatorship, Democracy or Division.” He likened the situation in the country to the unraveling of former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
“At the lowest level of everyday people, I don’t think there is a hatred. People don’t care who is Sunni or who is Shiite,” Anderson said by email. At the same time, “there’s a danger that once you start pulling at the threads, it comes apart,” he said.
For now, Iraqis are simply surviving, and helping each other to survive. “If a mortar hits, it will be god’s will,” Jabouri said. “My brothers will survive.”