BAGHDAD — Abu Saleh already sent one son to Turkey, and he prays that another makes it out before the inevitable knock on the door from the Shiite Muslim militiamen who stalk the neighborhood alongside Iraqi security forces, menacing the few Sunni families that remain.
The gunmen’s latest demand is for drivers to register their vehicles at local checkpoints, ostensibly to keep car bombs out of this district of New Baghdad. But Abu Saleh said the real reason is so that the militiamen can identify local Sunnis from their names and tribal affiliations.
That makes his son, with the traditional Sunni name of Omar, a target _ until the moment he joins the exodus of young men who are fleeing to neighboring countries, their parents determined not to lose another generation to Baghdad’s latest round of sectarian warfare.
“I worry, worry, worry, 24 hours a day,” said Abu Saleh, who, like nearly everyone interviewed about the sectarian tensions, asked that his full name be withheld for fear of retaliation. “It’s better for him to leave than to stay here and get killed. His mother cries every day.”
Baghdad’s Sunni families already whisper of young men who disappear at checkpoints, on their way to work or school, the likely victims of militiamen exacting revenge for the targeting of Shiites by the Islamic State, the al Qaida splinter group whose fighters have advanced to positions just a few miles outside the capital. Each time the extremists release a video of their execution-style killings of Shiites in the territories they’ve seized, Sunni families brace for collective punishment from the militias in Baghdad.
The accounts are reminiscent of the sectarian killings that plagued Iraq during the vicious civil war that killed thousands from late 2005 to early 2008, only this time the militiamen who once operated in secrecy now openly man checkpoints and ride along on patrols in lockstep with the Iraqi security forces. An edict from the highest Shiite religious authority called on volunteers to help in the defense of their country, a de facto sanctioning of Iran-backed militias whose help the Iraqi government has no choice but to accept after the military collapsed during last month’s Islamic State offensive.
An Iraqi government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to make public statements, said the militias are a concern but that the government is forced to rely on them in the vacuum left by the military’s collapse. So far, he said, “the militias have shown a degree of restraint,” and he added that he hadn’t heard of any pattern of sectarian killings like those of recent years.
Sunnis are scrambling to protect their sons, with relatives pooling money to buy young men one-way tickets to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. While some Shiite parents are doing the same, the flight pattern is unmistakably Sunni. Travel agents said they take no joy in the brisk sales, knowing that each ticket they issue to an “Omar” or “Abu Bakr” means the fragmentation of a family.
“Business has increased by about 800 percent,” said Mohamed Hani, manager of a travel agency with 16 branches across the country. “And our offices in Kharkh _ the majority-Sunni side of Baghdad _ are selling double the number of tickets as the other side.”
Just this week, Hani, a Shiite, got a call at midnight from a Sunni neighbor who begged him to issue a ticket on the spot for his son, Omar, after a rumor spread that militias had just killed 10 men with that name. The father pleaded with Hani to consider Omar “as a little brother” and stressed that the situation was life or death. The son flew to Turkey on Thursday night.
Hani said that if he didn’t have his elderly parents and an unmarried sister to protect, he’d also “be out of here tomorrow.”
“Life in Baghdad is warfare,” he said. “And we’re in the trenches, not knowing who the enemy is, whom exactly we’re fighting.”
During interviews at a branch of Hani’s company one recent afternoon, a mother and son walked in asking about flights to Turkey. The woman, Salma, shook her head sadly when she was asked whether she was booking a vacation.
“No, we’re running away,” she replied.
Salma’s only son is Mahmoud, 16, a lanky boy in trendy jeans and a baseball cap who said nearly all his school friends have left Iraq this summer. He’s Shiite but comes from a mixed family, and he’s already lost a Sunni brother-in-law to a sectarian killing in 2011. Each night before going to bed, the family pushes sofas and chairs to block the front door, their small defense against an intruder who could come at any time, and from either sect.
“At this stage, you don’t know who your enemy is, and it’s best to flee until things are clearer,” Salma said. “Our hearts are breaking, but what can we do? There’s no more goodness in Iraq.”
Perhaps the most visible evidence of the Sunni flight is in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, where local soccer teams have dissolved as the district empties of young men. A mother named Neda said her two sons, Mohamed, 23, and Mustafa, 20, survived the last Shiite militant incursions because they were then too young to be considered threats.
Now, however, Neda’s sons are just the right age to fall prey to the gunmen seeking to avenge Sunni extremists’ slaughters by attacking the first Sunni targets they can find. Neda flew with her sons to Turkey 10 days ago, even though she had to borrow money from relatives for the flight and isn’t sure how she’ll maintain a life in an expensive foreign country.
“We couldn’t take any more chances,” she said by telephone from Ankara, the Turkish capital. “If they’re stopped and asked where they’re from and they say, ‘Adhamiya,’ it’ll be, ‘Get in the car.’ It’s sectarian targeting; there’s just no other way to describe it.”
Neda allowed herself a moment of gallows humor, joking that “all of Adhamiya is here now!” She said she’s found many Sunni friends and neighbors in Turkey; they lean on one another to ease the heartache of this self-imposed exile. Many are just dropping off their sons before returning to Iraq.
Not Neda. Although her husband and other relatives remain in Baghdad, she refuses to return until she knows her sons can live ordinary lives without the fear that any step outside their front door might be their last.
“It was difficult before, but it’s even worse now because it’s under the auspices of the government,” Neda said, referring to the sectarian targeting. “We don’t know how it’s going to end.”