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Monday, December 11, 2006

Republic of Fear

The Mahdi Army

For Iraq's Sunnis, Conflict Closes In
Mixed Neighborhoods Unravel as Shiite Militiamen Expand Violence

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 11, 2006; A01

BAGHDAD, Dec. 10 -- A few blocks from Ali Farouk's three-story home, an empty house provides a glimpse of what he fears will be the future. Once owned by a Sunni Muslim, the paint is peeling, the windows are blown out. Two scarlet X's mark the pale blue front door.

To the door's right are the words: "Not for Sale. Wanted."

According to neighbors, "Wanted" refers to the former owner, who fled after crossing paths with the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The gunmen accused the owner of killing four of their own at a checkpoint. Then they took over his house.

To the door's left, the words: "This is vengeance for the other day."

Farouk, a Sunni Muslim, fears his home might be targeted next. In the past two months, Shiite militiamen have tightened their grip on his central Baghdad neighborhood of Tobji, purging dozens of Sunni families, by fear and by threats. His world has become even more precarious since a barrage of car bombs, mortar shells and missiles killed more than 200 on Nov. 23 in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum that is home to many of Sadr's loyalists.

So Farouk began preparing to do what neither his father nor his grandfather could have imagined in their Iraq: flee Tobji, an enclave where Shiites and Sunnis have coexisted for more than half a century. Farouk plans to join the more than 400,000 Iraqis who have fled their homes, an exodus that is reshaping the face of Baghdad into neighborhoods polarized along sectarian lines.

On Saturday, Farouk's mission grew more urgent. In the latest spasm of revenge attacks, gangs of Shiite gunmen stormed Hurriyah, a mixed neighborhood adjacent to Tobji, torching houses, killing at least two Sunni Arabs and driving out dozens of Sunni families. On Sunday, in interviews across Tobji, Sunni Arabs worried that their fate could soon mirror their brethren's.

"It is coming like a wave," said Khudir Mahmoud, 32, after his midday prayers. "If the government doesn't intervene, the wave will reach here. We are only one street away."

The unraveling of Tobji and Hurriyah is the latest setback for the nation's Sunni minority, which is still seeking a political foothold in Iraq in the fourth year of war. Sunnis were once part of the country's privileged class, with government jobs, but their days and nights are now filled with fear and dread unlike anything they felt since the toppling of President Saddam Hussein.

"We are stuck in a big hole waiting for Lucifer to take our souls," said Farouk, 46, a father of seven. "At any moment we can die."
Worry Despite Precautions

Rabiaa Street, a dusty, congested thoroughfare, flows through central Baghdad west of the Tigris River. Along one stretch, near a patch of machinery shops, Hurriyah and Tobji face each other across the street. In Arabic, Hurriyah means freedom. Tobji's official name is Salaam. It means peace.

On one side, the road streams into Hurriyah's core, past a Sunni mosque that was destroyed, past a satellite office of Sadr, where clusters of young men lingered, past signs that read "Long Live Shia."

On the other side of Rabiaa Street is a set of railroad tracks nestled on the edge of Tobji, a working-class community of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. In recent months, bodies of both Shiites and Sunnis have been dumped along the tracks, residents said Sunday. The killings are evidence of how the war to control the capital is spreading and how Shiite militiamen are increasingly pushing into western Baghdad, where Sunnis dominate.

Farouk's house sits in the heart of Tobji, around the corner from walls with black markings that read "Long Live Sadr." He is burly, with a long, oval face and a thin gray mustache, one of three Sunnis who live on the block.

He met a journalist first on Nov. 30, a week after the Sadr City attacks, on the condition that his father's, grandfather's and tribe's names not be used. Farouk is his great-grandfather's name. He told his Shiite neighbors that he was receiving a visit from co-workers at the government ministry where he is employed.

Even with those precautions, he was worried. Fearful of attracting attention, he rushed his visitor to the second-floor living room of his house. At the top of the narrow staircase, a large poster of Imam Ali, the most revered Shiite saint, along with several other important Shiite figures, stared from a wall. Farouk said he put up the posters the day of the Sadr City attacks -- in case Shiite militiamen came that night. He has no plans to take them down, he said.

"I am scared. I am Sunni," he said that day.
A Showcase of Dangers

In the 1950s, Farouk's Sunni father moved to Tobji. Farouk's mother was a Shiite, and his first name, Ali, is given to both Shiites and Sunnis. He went to school with Shiites and had Shiite friends. Neither sect nor ethnicity defined his identity, even when Hussein, a Sunni, brutally oppressed the Shiite community after he took power.

The war didn't reach Tobji in full force until this year. In January, gunmen wearing police uniforms and driving police vehicles abducted 53 Sunnis. Most were never seen again. The next month, a Shiite shrine in the town of Samarra was bombed, triggering cycles of revenge killings.

Mixed neighborhoods across Baghdad, including this one, started to rip apart. Still, after each attack, Tobji managed to heal momentarily, because of a tribal leadership of Sunnis and Shiites that is struggling to preserve the bonds between their communities.

Today, the last mile to Farouk's house is a showcase of the danger that threatens to overtake their efforts. Around the corner from an Iraqi army checkpoint, young men wearing dark clothes and clutching AK-47 assault rifles stand guard, a testament to the fact that they, not the Iraqi soldiers, are in charge. Some clutch black two-way radios; others stare fixedly into cars. On Sunday, one man stood in the middle of the street with a small piece of white paper, checking the license plates of cars.

The affiliation of the men with guns can be discerned by looking at a nearby concrete barrier. Scrawled in red paint are words boldly expressed in Arabic: "Yes for the Mahdi Army."

Women in black, head-to-toe abayas float like shadows in the sun here. A few blocks away, residents walk past the empty, disfigured house of the Sunni Arab without casting a glance. On a visit four weeks ago, Mahdi Army militiamen, including one who sat in a yellow plastic chair in the middle of the road, stopped cars and demanded:

"Why are you here? What is your tribe?"

posted by Steve @ 1:52:00 AM

1:52:00 AM

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