Growing friction separates Shiite, Sunni

More Iraqi families flee once-integrated neighborhoods as religious lines harden.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

While central Iraq was calmer during an unprecedented three-day curfew in this part of the country, imposed to stop a wave of tit-for-tat sectarian killings, Sunni and Shiites in Baghdad say residents of religiously mixed neighborhoods continued to flee to safety across the country's ever-hardening sectarian front lines.

Representatives of the Mahdi Army, which is loyal to powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, say more than 100 Shiite families have fled homes on the outskirts of the city and some of them have taken up residence in the area's schools, under their group's care.

Calls for unity and brotherhood issued by top Sunni and Shiite leaders were starting to be drowned out by their followers' demands for revenge, and amid fingerpointing by the leaders themselves.

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"I don't want to be brothers with Sunnis, because they continue to kill Shiites so it's very hard to follow the religious leadership on this matter,'' says Rahim Abdul Karim, a member of the Mahdi Army, the militia which controls much of Baghdad's sprawling northeastern neighborhood of Sadr City. "How can we give up our arms and keep quiet when bombs are still raining down? (We) keep our weapons and protect ourselves - and attack anyone who threatens us."

Killing squads have continued to break into homes in neighborhoods like Dora, a Sunni-controlled area in the city's south that has sizable Shiite pockets; in Abu Ghraib on the western outskirts of Baghdad; and near Latifiyah, another trouble spot just south of the city, murdering the heads of families and warning the survivors to move.

Sunnis, too, have been killed or scared away from their homes. In the Thabat neighborhood, a Sunni home was razed on Tuesday, the day after the family fled the area because of threats. The head of the family was arrested in the middle of last month, and when his name was announced on national television, a common practice now, Shiite militias threatened the family.

On Tuesday, Mohammed Said Rashid, a Sunni, was murdered by masked gunmen in his shoe shop in Amariyah. His brother says it was a sectarian attack, since nothing was stolen. "They burst in, told a woman to get out, and then shot him in the head,'' said Mr. Rashid. "He was good guy and wasn't involved in politics. No one but God can protect us."

The events of the past week appear to be accelerating what has been a slow descent into sectarian conflict since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, and make it unlikely that a government will be formed anytime soon.

National elections were held Dec. 15, and a coalition of Shiite parties took 47 percent of the seats. But leading Shiite and Sunni politicians say it could be early May before a new government sits.

Top Sunni politicians have boycotted talks with Shiites on joining a government since the Askariya shrine attack, which touched off reprisals against dozens of Sunni mosques. They are demanding withdrawal of Shiite-led police units from Sunni neighborhoods before ending the boycott.

Violence that has killed at least 400 people since the Feb. 22 destruction of the famous Shiite shrine in Samarra has slowed but not stopped. Wednesday, a car bomb in the mixed New Baghdad neighborhood killed at least 23. A smaller car bomb killed at least three people, and three residents of Mahmoudiya, a mixed town south of Baghdad, were killed in a mortar attack.

On Wednesday, Abdel Salam al-Kubaisi, spokesman for the influential Sunni Muslim Clerics Association, held an impassioned press conference - carried live by Al Jazeera - in which he accused the US and the Iraqi government of complicity in Shiite militia attacks against Sunnis, and claimed the national police attacked the home of the association's chief cleric, Harith al-Dari.

"Some want a civil war in Iraq," said Mr. Kubaisi. "The problem [is] ... with the Shiite leaders ... and with America."

President Bush told ABC News Wednesday that he didn't accept the "premise that there's going to be a civil war." But National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, a former US Ambassador to Baghdad, told a Senate committee Tuesday that civil war could draw in Sunni neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Shiite ones like Iran, and destabilize the region.

"If chaos were to descend upon Iraq or the forces of democracy were to be defeated ... this would have implications for the rest of the Middle East'' and the world, he said.

But for many families, such turmoil has already descended. At two centers for Shiite refugees in Baghdad, their managers - who say they are members of the Mahdi Army - say they are caring for about 70 and 50 families, respectively, and that more arrive daily.

Jassim Mohammed Abid said his blood ran cold when he opened his clothing shop last Wednesday and found a note from Jihad Brigade of the Abu Ghraib Mujahideen Council. "We know you're connected to suspect families, so you have 48 hours to move. If you don't, you'll be killed."

On Thursday, he defied the curfew and fled with his wife and four children to the Shiite area of Shoala, where 70 other families are billeted at a school. "All my money was tied up in the store. I abandoned everything. It's probably been looted,'' he says with resignation. "I won't go back. They don't call us Shiites anymore - just 'spies' or 'infidels.' "

The Sunni-led insurgency has long aimed to promote a civil war, but so far, Iraq's Shiites - thought to make up about 60 percent of the population - have refused to be drawn in, in part because of the moderating influence of their most respected cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

But as conversations with Mahdi Army members in recent days make clear, patience is thinning. "The Shiite tribes have been putting a lot of pressure on [Sistani] to allow them to take revenge,'' says Joost Hiltermann, who runs the International Crisis Group's Middle East Project in Amman, Jordan. "The notion of revenge goes so deep ... and they've been leaning on him."

Indeed, more hot-blooded junior clerics like Mr. Sadr seem to be gaining ground. Sunni leaders have repeatedly blamed his Mahdi Army for reprisals, something Sadr's representatives deny.

Sistani "can't keep Iraq safe by just continuously talking about unity where there are all these attacks against us,'' says Aqil Abdi Sadeh, a baker and Sadr supporter. "Sometimes religious leaders guide events, and sometimes events should guide religious leaders."

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