Shiite exodus from mixed towns

Thousands of Iraqis have fled their homes as a result of rising sectarian violence.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

For the past nine weeks, Nabil Abdul Hassan has had more business than he can handle. He's a home builder in Chikook, a western suburb of cinder-block houses that is filling up with Shiite Iraqis who are increasingly fleeing sectarian violence in religiously mixed villages.

"I've built 20 houses in the past two weeks, and it's been like that since what happened in Samarra," he says, referring to the attack on the Askariya shrine, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, on Feb. 22. "The other builders in this neighborhood say the same. And it is like that in other neighborhoods nearby."

The escalation of sectarian bloodshed that followed the bombing has driven 6,600 families from their homes, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent and the Iraqi government. The houses mushrooming around this neighborhood are an indication that the separation of Iraq's Arab Shiites and Sunnis is accelerating, threatening the country's long-term unity.

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Around Baghdad, Shiites coming in from outlying villages are living in tents provided by the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. IRCS President Said Hakki says the agency is preparing to aid some 50,000 families, and has requested aid from the US military to build sanitation facilities for camps and provide rations. Other Shiites are going south to predominantly Shiite cities such as Basra, Najaf, and Karbala.

Most of the families in Chikook are from Haswa, a village southwest of Baghdad. The men here say there was a progression - first they became afraid to travel to Baghdad for work, which took them through largely Sunni suburbs on the west side of the city where people were frequently attacked on the road. Further west of Haswa is largely Sunni Abu Ghraib, a site of consistent guerrilla activity for more than two years.

Abu Ali is asked why Shiites, the majority of the population of Haswa, didn't fight back as they have in other areas. "Haswa is surrounded," he says, asking to be identified only by his nickname which means, in Arabic, father of Ali. He arrived in Chikook a little more than a week ago.

The people in Chikook say they have received no assistance from the Iraqi government, which remains in a state of limbo. Iraq's Shiite politicians, meeting Wednesday, failed to resolve the deadlock over their nominee for prime minister, an issue that has stalled the formation of a government following December's national elections. Instead, acting parliament speaker Adnan Pachachi said that he would convene the parliament next week, hoping to force the issue.

"It's my duty to the Iraqi people in order to preserve the credibility of the democratic process," he told a press conference.

But few in Chikook are expecting much help; Fed up with security forces they said were unable to make them feel secure in their homes. Umm Thair (meaning mother of Thair) arrived in Chikook a year ago from Mosul after her husband was assassinated for selling cars to the government, she says. Her house, larger than most, overflows with families waiting for their own dwellings to be built.

"The government does nothing! What should I say about the government? This is the democracy. This is the freedom," she says, laughing bitterly. "The freedom is that you must leave your house."

"Families are living in their cars," says Abu Ali. "It's like Shiites aren't human beings."

IRCS president Mr. Hakki says his organization is expecting many more refugees to come to Baghdad. "The whole scheme [of attacks] seems to be very well-organized and well-executed," he says.

In Chikook, residents of the newly erected tent camp hold up letters from Sunni Arab insurgent groups such as the Islamic Army of Iraq and Ansar Al-Sunni. They variously accuse men of giving aid to Shiite militias or the Iraqi National Guard and give them an amount of time to leave - a few days or 24 hours - before "passing God's judgment," in the words of one of the letters.

"Everyone just left," says Harmeet Hanoon, also from Haswa. "The violence is increasing. More people are coming each day."

Filling the void left by the government, the Mahdi Army, the militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has provided assistance to displaced families in neighborhoods all over Baghdad.

Most of the neighborhoods like Chikook are proximal to Sadr City, the northern suburb of more than 2 million that comprises Mr. Sadr's power base. Chikook itself is on the south side of Shoala, a slightly smaller, poorer neighborhood similar to Sadr City. The militia is also strong in Shoala, and the residents of Chikook say the local Sadr office has been providing gas, food, and protection for the residents and even pointed them to the vacant land upon which to build houses or pitch tents.

"We ask the Iraqi government to find a solution for those who are suffering instead of arguing about seats," says Abdullah al-Rikaby, a spokesman for the Sadr office in Shoala.

Shiites are not the only ones being cleansed. Sunnis are also leaving areas in which they are the minority, pushed out by Shiite militias. The Iraqi Islamic Party in Baghdad says it has registered 1,500 displaced families since the Samarra attack.

The migration of both Arab Sunni and Shiites seems to be fueling sectarian tension. Naim Hussein lives in Imam al-Ridha, a neighborhood similar to Chikook that borders Sadr City. After fleeing Taji, north of the capital, two months ago after three of his cousins were killed by insurgents, he now states his allegiance to Sadr's militia.

Though Sadr has called for calm, some of the young men are ready to fight.

"We are all Jeish al-Imam," says Mr. Hussein, giving the militia's alternate name. "We are waiting for the green light from our leaders. If there were really a civil war, there would be no Sunnis left."

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