WORLD / Middle East

Sectarian divides change Baghdad's image
Updated: 2006-07-03 16:16

Imad Talib lived in a Shiite-dominated district for many years until threats by Shiite militiamen forced the Sunni Arab to move across town. Ahmed Khazim left a mostly Sunni suburb for Sadr City, where his Shiite sect forms the majority.

An Iraqi girl washes her hands at a camp for displaced families in the Shiite al-Shaala district of Baghdad. Iraq has said it has captured a Tunisian Al-Qaeda militant allegedly behind the February bombing of a revered Shiite shrine that unleashed a massive wave of sectarian violence.[AFP]

Religiously mixed neighborhoods of this sprawling city are gradually disappearing as sectarian tensions are prompting Shiites and Sunnis to move to areas where they are predominant.

The trend is raising concerns that Baghdad is slowly being transformed into a divided city with a Shiite-dominated east and mostly Sunni west, separated by the Tigris River that flows through the heart of the capital.

The independent newspaper Al-Mashriq cited the trend, warning in a recent editorial against the "sick dreams of sick people" to redraw the map of Baghdad "into two sectarian parts."

"Those acts (of violence) have convinced us that we are no longer welcome. We prefer to lose our houses than to lose our families," said Khazim, who left the heavily Sunni Abu Ghraib suburb and moved his 12-member family into a rented apartment in Shiite-dominated Sadr City.

Talib, the Sunni, said he decided to move to a largely Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad after a Sunni neighbor was killed. The neighbor had ignored warnings by the Mahdi army, the Shiite militia led by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

All that seems ominously like the days of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, when Christians held sway in the east of Beirut and Muslims dominated the west. Roadblocks, high sand barriers and armed men kept the two religious communities apart.

The situation in Baghdad, a religiously and ethnically mixed city of about 6 million people, is far from wartime Beirut. Nevertheless, many Iraqis fear a divided future if sectarian violence cannot be contained.

Moves toward sectarian division began soon after the 2003 collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. The trend accelerated after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. The bombing triggered reprisal attacks against Sunnis in Baghdad, Basra and other religiously mixed areas.

Since the Samarra bombing, Interior Ministry official Satar Nawrouz estimates that nearly 4,000 families or about 23,670 people have been forced to relocate to other neighborhoods in the Baghdad area due to sectarian tensions.

In an effort to curb the sectarian flight, police Col. Ali Rashid said authorities are adding checkpoints and patrols in the areas where armed groups are threatening people in hopes of reassuring minorities they will be safe. He said armed extremists from the rival camps want to establish "practically separate neighborhoods on Sunni and Shiite basis" and establish "a clear front-line between the two parts of Baghdad."

But many Sunnis complain that the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry is at the heart of the problem, alleging that it has been infiltrated by the militias.

The new government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has promised to crack down on the militias. But the prime minister's promise has done little so far to reassure ordinary Iraqis.

Instead, signs of a widening gap between Sunnis and Shiites are becoming clearer.

Sunni taxi drivers who shuttled between Jordan and Syria are now telling passengers living in Shiite neighborhoods that they will pick them up only in Sunni areas. The route to Jordan and Syria goes through Anbar province, a stronghold of Sunni insurgents.

Shiite taxi driver Jamal Nassir remembers roaming over all of Baghdad just a few months ago in search of fares. Now he refuses to take passengers through Sunni neighborhoods, fearing for his life.

No neighborhood in Baghdad is entirely safe, as the 66 deaths in a car bomb Saturday in Sadr City attest. But many Iraqis find the prospect of death and injury in random bombings less frightening than being hunted down and slain by militiamen from a rival sect.

Many Iraqis who feel safe in their neighborhoods have begun to steer clear of parts of the capital where they are in the minority.

Two months ago, Hakim al-Kinani, a Shiite, and three cousins were heading home when their car was stopped at what they thought was a police checkpoint in Azamiyah, a Sunni part of the capital.

As he approached the checkpoint, al-Kinani called his family on his cell phone to say he would be delayed because of security checks. But he and his cousins never showed up. The checkpoint was actually manned by gunmen in police uniforms, their relatives said.

Their bodies were discovered the next day in the Baghdad morgue. Hakim's brother, Jassim, said the family now avoids any route that takes them through Azamiyah.