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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

IRAQ: No end to the year-old sectarian strife

BAGHDAD, 21 February 2007 (IRIN) - Seven months ago, masked gunmen carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47 automatic rifles kicked down the gate of Kadhim al-Mayahi’s house, fired into the air and told the 68-year-old Shia Arab he had 48 hours to get his family out of the predominantly Sunni neighbourhood in western Baghdad.

“They told me that we have just two days to leave, and if they returned and found us still here they would slaughter everyone,” said al-Mayahi, a father of four, from outside the house his family since moved to.

Al-Mayahi’s tale of fear and desperation is one of thousands caused by the sectarian cleansing that has swept through Iraq over the past year and brought the war-weary country to the brink of civil war.

The turning point in relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq can be traced back directly to 22 February, 2006, when a revered Shia shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, was bombed by what many believe was a Sunni group.

The attack spawned days of reprisals that damaged or destroyed dozens of mosques, killed hundreds and made thousands of families homeless. An Interior Ministry official, who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said nearly 500 civilians were killed in the bombing’s immediate reprisal.

Since then, clashes and revenge killings between Sunnis and Shias have escalated at an alarming rate. In the capital, which has seen the highest levels of violence in the country, families of the respective sects have been driven out of neighbourhoods where they long lived if they were in the minority.

Mass emigration of Sunnis

Some analysts say that Baghdad is being “de-Sunnified” by the mass emigration of Sunnis to other areas of the country. However, the extent of the reshuffling of Baghdad’s six million residents according to sect remains unclear as no reliable data is available. What is known is that hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes.

According to the Iraqi Migration and Displacement Ministry, nearly 100,000 families, about 500,000 individuals, have been displaced countrywide since February 2006.

Of those, about 30,000 families - or about 180,000 people - have fled their homes in the capital, Baghdad, to escape sectarian violence, a senior official at the ministry told IRIN on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to disclose numbers.

Al-Mayahi’s new home in the predominantly Shia northern Baghdad neighbourhood of Shula was provided by the Sadrist movement of radical Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. The house may once have belonged to Sunnis, although it was impossible to find out.

Now, it’s in the hands of al-Mayahi, his four sons and their families, who had all lived together in the Sunni-dominated Rissala neighbourhood in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib suburb, which gives its name to the notorious prison there.

The Iraqi government wants to put an end to sectarian violence and the illegal seizure of homes in the capital. On 14 February, it declared a new security crackdown – dubbed ‘Operation Imposing Law’ - in conjunction with US forces in Iraq with these aims in mind.

In a bid to stop the sectarian bloodletting, the government said those who had occupied the homes of displaced families would be given 15 days to return the properties to their original owners or prove they had permission to be there.

But creating a safe environment for thousands of people to move back to their Baghdad neighbourhoods is a monumental task, especially when the streets are still not secure, analysts have said. With the new security operation only just beginning, there is little evidence so far of many people returning to their rightful homes.

Operation Imposing Law

It is also not clear how many Iraqis trust the government’s assurances that they will be protected against militias and sectarian death squads if they do move back. In a press conference on Wednesday, Brigadier Qassim al-Mousawi, spokesman for Operation Imposing Law, said that about 650 families had returned to their homes in Baghdad since the new crackdown began a week ago.

For many ordinary people in Baghdad, whether Shia or Sunni, there are feelings of resignation to the violence and helplessness.

“We [Sunnis and Shias] can’t live together anymore. We have to live separately,” said Faiq Tahssen Yousif, a 44-year-old Sunni carpenter who was forced by Shia militias to leave his Shia-dominated neighbourhood of Hurriyah five months ago.

“It is blood between us now, they are killing us and we are killing them. It is not easy to recover from this and get back to how it was before,” Youssif, a father of three girls added.

Al-Mayahi, the Shia forced to flee his home, blames politicians for having stirred up a sectarian hatred that never existed before in Iraq.

”We don't know why this is happening to us,” al-Mayahi said. “There is no point. There is no difference between Sunnis and Shias. The politicians have created these divisions. Let them take Iraq’s wealth; that’s what they want. But let the people live in peace.”



Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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