Violence uproots Shiites and Sunnis, threatening to divide the capital

Violence uproots Shiites and Sunnis, threatening to divide the capital
September 1st, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Violence uproots Shiites and Sunnis, threatening to divide the capital

Violence uproots Shiites and Sunnis, threatening to divide the capital
Media: The Associated Press
Date: 01 September 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq_Four years ago this was a city where people mixed freely _
where, in most parts of town, no one cared if a neighborhood was majority
Sunni or Shiite. Loyalty to Saddam Hussein was more important than religious

But now a battle for Baghdad is well under way between the two major Muslim
sects. Death squads are slaughtering people daily and an estimated 160,000
Iraqis have fled their homes _ mostly here in the capital.

Out of that violence, a new but not better city is emerging. Many Iraqis
fear that the result will be a Sunni west and a Shiite east, with the broad
Tigris River snaking through the middle as the sectarian boundary.

The process ultimately could leave a legacy of bitterness and poison Iraqi
society for generations. Each sect has legitimate claims to territory on
both sides of the river that they won't emotionally abandon. And no national
Iraqi government can truly function if sectarian "no go" zones are scattered
all over the capital.

Baghdad, Iraq's largest city with a population of more than 6 million, is
still a long way from that stark sectarian divide. There are many
religiously mixed neighborhoods, and Shiite and Sunni enclaves remain on
both sides of the river.

The mixed character of some neighborhoods, such as Jihad and Amariyah, is
partly due to Saddam Hussein's policy of rewarding government officials and
Baath Party figures.

Spacious villas or plots of land in newly developed neighborhoods went to
Iraqis based not on religion but on loyalty to the regime. Rich Shiite
businessmen were as welcome as anyone, even in neighborhoods populated by
officers from Saddam's Sunni-dominated military.

But that peaceful coexistence began to change after the U.S.-led invasion of
2003 that toppled Saddam.

Sunnis, suddenly powerless, saw the Shiite politicians and clerics who
cooperated with the Americans as their enemy and legitimate targets in the
sectarian struggle.

The rifts widened dramatically this year. After a Feb. 22 blast destroyed an
important Shiite shrine in Samarra, Shiite hard-liners stopped listening to
their clerics' appeals for restraint.

Although reliable census data is unavailable, the city has developed
historically with Sunnis in greater numbers west of the Tigris and Shiites,
Kurds and Christians more numerous in the east. That general pattern has
been sharpened and made more stark as tensions have risen and people have
fled to neighborhoods where others of their "kind" live.

As the city reshapes itself, flashpoints are emerging. The core fight today
is a struggle for control of the corridors into the city from the north and

In the north, Shiites control an arc of neighborhoods _ Sadr City, Kazimiyah
and Shula. In the south, Sunni militants are trying to consolidate power in
another arc, comprised of Sadiyah and Dora.

The anchor of Shiite power is Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad. It's an
almost exclusively Shiite community of 2.5 million people that is the
stronghold of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, head of an important militia
called the Mahdi army.

For the time being, Sadr City is a Shiite militia safe haven. Al-Sadr is a
key supporter of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the prime minister
angrily criticized the Americans for using excessive force in a joint
U.S.-Iraqi raid on Sadr City in early August.

From Sadr City, Mahdi militiamen fan out across eastern Baghdad and use
major traffic arteries such as Palestine Street to reach religiously mixed
areas to the south and east. That gives them a degree of control along the
eastern and northern routes into the city _ and they're trying to strengthen
that control.

Leon Franca Aziz, 61, a Christian, used to live in one of those mixed
eastern neighborhoods until he found a warning spray-painted on the wall
around his house: "Crusaders must leave or their heads will be our sons'
soccer balls." He packed up and moved to Syria last April.

Sparsely populated areas just outside Sadr City also are good locations for
firing mortars and rockets at the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, to the
southwest along the west bank of the Tigris.

To the west of Sadr City lies a second major Shiite stronghold _ Kazimiyah _
a neighborhood that grew up around the shrine of an 8th century Shiite
saint. Next over to the west lies Shula, a haven for Shiites driven from
their homes elsewhere.

But wedged between Sadr City and Kazimiyah is a cluster of Sunni districts,
chief among them Azamiyah, where Saddam hid when Baghdad fell to U.S. forces
in April 2003. Azamiyah thus prevents Shiite extremists from moving freely
between Sadr City and the two other Shiite strongholds to the west.

That makes Azamiyah a target for Shiite militiamen. Mindful of that, Sunnis
in Azamiyah have formed armed neighborhood militias to guard against
outsiders _ even those who in theory are there to protect them.

When Iraqi government police entered the area last April to set up
checkpoints, many Azamiyah residents were convinced that Shiite death squads
would not be far behind. The Sunni groups battled government forces for two

Meanwhile, across the city on Baghdad's southern rim, lies another key
flashpoint _ where Sunnis are pressing to consolidate power over the mixed,
but mostly Sunni, neighborhoods of Dora and Sadiyah.

The arc they form along a bend in the Tigris River is another key point of
control. It's a route that Shiite pilgrims travel between Baghdad and a
religious shrine to the south. But it also connects Baghdad to a belt of
Sunni villages where al-Qaida and other Sunni religious extremists operate _
an area known as the "Triangle of Death" for its frequent attacks.

In this area, Dora is the prize. A once-fashionable neighborhood of spacious
villas and leafy streets, it was home, before Saddam's fall, to Sunnis,
Shiites and Christians who lived together peacefully. Now, Sunni extremists
have been violently pressuring Shiites and Christians to leave.

Shiite physician Ahmed Mulktar, his wife and their four children left their
two-story house in Dora in July for a cramped apartment in eastern Baghdad
after he was kidnapped and told there was "no room for Shiites" in Dora.

"I didn't have any other choice but to leave my house and move to another,
safer area," Mulktar said.

Sunni control of Dora also threatens Karradah, a mostly Shiite district
across the Tigris that is controlled by the country's biggest Shiite party.
In late July, about 30 people were killed in Karradah in a coordinated
attack of car bombs and a rocket barrage fired across the river from Dora.

Since then, U.S. officials have claimed some success in reducing the city's
sectarian violence with a major influx of troops. But restoring public
confidence will take much longer, and in the meantime the city continues to
segregate along religious lines.

Abu Saleh, a retired Agriculture Ministry official, moved from Shula, in the
Shiite area, to Sadiyah in July after he and his wife were verbally harassed
as "defiled Sunnis."

"Moving to another place was a must," he said. "But it was hard to leave
everything behind."

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