BAGHDAD, Iraq—Mohammed al-Taie's family had lived in Haswa on Baghdad's outskirts for 50 years, but then two months ago, after months of dismissing death threats, Taie's brother was kidnapped, and the Shiite Muslim family's 34 members decided it was time to leave their beloved, but mostly Sunni, neighborhood.
So, with the help of a neighbor, they found a Sunni family living in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Shula and agreed to swap houses.
Such swaps are becoming increasingly common as Iraqis find themselves searching for ways to avoid becoming victim to Baghdad's increasingly vicious cycle of sectarian violence. Shiite families in Sunni neighborhoods and Sunni families in Shiite neighborhoods change places.
In a city where no one wants to buy a house and renting is too expensive for most, house swapping has become an ideal compromise for some. The old family introduces the new family to the community, and both sides vow to take care of their new home.
It's also provided a way for politicians to garner support by providing services to newly relocated Shiites that the government cannot.
Supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been particularly adept, using their control of the ministries of education, which oversees schools, and trade, which oversees the country's rationing system, to make sure families are comfortable in their new homes.
Sadrists greet new families, help them transfer their children to new schools, secure their streets, move their food ration card to the new community and in some cases provide gasoline at a time when there is a nationwide shortage.
Shiite residents who've swapped houses said they'd depended more on Sadr's political wing than the government to help them get acclimated in their new communities.
Taie's family never wanted to leave Haswa, even though neighbors had urged them to go—an insult in Iraqi culture.
But they started packing even as they waited for word of Taie's brother's release after they paid a $50,000 ransom.
At first, they rented a furnished home. But after paying the ransom, the $50 monthly rent was more than they could afford, Taie said. After two months in the rented house, they also found that fitting 34 people into one house was unbearable.
That's when a former neighbor called with a proposition. A Sunni, he had relatives living in predominantly Shiite Shula. They'd just received a death threat and were eager to leave. Taie agreed to talk to them. They made the arrangements over the phone.
Neither family pays the other rent, and while Taie said his new home is smaller than he'd been led to believe, it will do "until the situation around us gets better."
"I couldn't do anything but try to save my family," he said.
Taie was not alone. Another man, who wanted to be referred to only as Abu Hussein, 49, also left Hawsa for Shula, swapping homes with a woman who had just received a death threat. Abu Hussein also had received threats and a car bomb had exploded on his street weeks earlier.
As he packed he said his head was filled with thoughts of the Dec. 15 election that brought the current government to office. "We voted for this government, and now we have to do this," he said.
There are no hard statistics on how many people have swapped houses in Baghdad. Isam Abu Ali, 35, a representative in Sadr's Shula office, said Sadr supporters have provided food, blankets, gas, money and even furniture to 2,200 families arriving in Shula alone.
Officials at the Ministry of Immigrants and Displacement, which is led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's independent slate, said they condemned house swapping and had no numbers on it.
Both Abu Hussein and Taie said they didn't inform the police about their move.
Abu Hussein said he was glad now to be living among fellow Shiites.
"Many Sunni families used to live in Shula, but they left," he said. "Frankly, I feel good that they left because I know they used to provide information to the terrorists."
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.