Sectarian strife tears at neighbors

Iraqis vote Saturday on a constitution aimed at unifying the country. But in Baghdad, the Sunni-Shiite divide widens.

The soft grass of Wisam Ali's front garden in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Sadiyah once beckoned to his friends, sometimes a dozen at a time, to gather and catch up on the news.

But now, "only three or four are left. Most of them were killed," says Mr. Ali, sitting on lawn furniture on the untrampled grass of his home.

In a crescent of neighborhoods on Baghdad's western and southern edges - Abu Ghraib, Sadiyah, Amriyah, and Dora - average Iraqis say sectarian violence has driven people from their homes, shuttered businesses, and killed untold numbers in what appears to be a campaign by armed groups on both sides to drive deeper the wedge between Sunnis and Shiites.

The constitution that will be put to the Iraqi people for a vote this weekend was meant to prevent such violence by unifying the diverse country. But the referendum comes at a time when the country has never seemed more divided.

Shiites describe threatening leaflets fluttering down on their front stoops that are backed up by bombings and shootings by Sunni insurgent groups. Sunnis fear arrests by Shiite-dominated Iraqi police and army or Shiite militias like the government-sanctioned Badr Brigade.

While Baghdad is a teeming metropolis, at the neighborhood level the communities are small and most people know each other, including their religious affiliations. This closeness has spurred many marriages and lifelong friendships between the city's diverse groups. But now such closeness can be a liability for those living in neighborhoods closest to the troubled western areas of Iraq.

The killings and other violence in the neighborhood have driven out most of Ali's neighbors. Those left have closed off their small street from the main road with concertina wire and debris.

Shiites appear to be more often killed in such violence, based on interviews and the frequency of car bombs and other violence directed at Shiites. But Sunnis say ever since the Shiite Islamist party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), swept January's elections, its Badr Brigade militia has stepped up targeted assassinations of prominent Sunnis.

The sounds of war

Helicopters often roar overhead and tanks rumble loudly down a main street in the west Baghdad Amriyah neighborhood, a stone's throw from the airport and the American base there.

"Really, I am afraid," says Iyad Ahmed, a Sunni who sells paint and hardware supplies in a shop he is considering closing because of attacks on his street.

He reaches down to a bottom drawer in a desk and reveals the AK-47. "The Iraqi soldiers are not normal soldiers. They come from the [Shiite political] parties ... they come in the clothes of police and kill people."

He charges that his cousin's son was taken by Iraqi security forces, and that he found him dead at a hospital with signs he had been beaten. "I asked the neighbors what happened and they said he was always talking to people about Sunni and Shiite. Only speaking!" exclaimed Mr. Ahmed. "After this I thought the problem [of Sunnis being targeted] in Iraq was very bad."

A little farther west is Abu Ghraib, a town within Baghdad's environs and home to the prison infamous for abuses under Saddam Hussein and US forces.

Abu Abdullah's prominent Shiite family in Abu Ghraib participated in the first celebrations of major Shiite holidays there after the fall of Baghdad. Their Sunni neighbors even helped guard the traditional processions marking the death of the Shiite saint Imam Hussein. But a year-and-a-half later, the 18-member family fled their two large homes for another Baghdad neighborhood after they were warned of threats against them and a close family friend was killed.

"The insurgents started to kill the Shiites and we saw no reaction from the Sunnis against them," says Abdullah, who used a false name.

"The people who were killed by the outlaws, their names were on a blacklist hung in the market," he says. "After that, they were killed and some other people received threats."

But the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora has seen some of the worst sectarian violence. Abu Mohammed, a Shiite resident, says eight of the 20 Shiite families that once lived on his street had at least one member of the family killed. He says one was killed after being accused of being a Badr Brigade member.

"We are the only Shiite family left" on his street, says Abu Mohammed, who also feared using his real name. "We heard from a neighbor that we should move as our name was on a list."

Fellow Dora resident, Abu Omar, has different fears as a Sunni. "We are terrified the most of Iraqi Army and special forces," says Abu Omar, who also used a false name. He says he fears being accused of being a terrorist.

"Once I used to feel sorry when someone attacked the police or killed soldiers and special forces. I changed this point of view after I saw a raid on my neighbors at 5 a.m., catching them barely dressed," he says.

No money to move

Abu Omar and Abu Mohammed say Dora has been virtually lawless since a few months after the US invasion. The violence has depressed real-estate prices so residents can't rent or sell their homes for enough money to be able to move. Commerce has also been curtailed.

In Sadiyah, Wisam Ali says homes have lost a third of their value. "If you stop a taxi driver and tell him 'Sadiyah', he won't take you," says Saif Ali, Wisam Ali's brother.

But for as many examples as residents rattle off of the sectarian violence, they are adamant that the Sunni-Shiite divide is created by outside forces and will list the diversity of their family and friends to prove it. They say they feel like pawns.

"I woke up one morning and someone wrote, 'this nation will live only by jihad' on my fence," says Abu Mohammed, from Dora.

"The problem," he adds, "is that I can't erase what the insurgents put on my fence. But if the Americans see it...." His voice trails off, but he indicates that he worries US forces might search his home or arrest him.

With no choice but to lock his door and hope it protects him, Wisam Ali in Sadiyah says he is turning to the only authority he still believes in.

"Where will we go? We have no one outside Iraq to support us. We think about [leaving] but it's hard," he says. "God will protect us."

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