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Shiites fleeing Sunni-dominated Baghdad neighborhoods

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The ethnic cleansing of Baghdad neighborhoods is proceeding at an alarming and potentially destabilizing pace.

Some Shiite Muslim residents in predominantly Sunni Muslim Baghdad neighborhoods are fleeing their homes because they say the country's violence and sectarian tensions have reached their front doors, forcing them to move into more homogenous communities.

Government officials and academic experts agree that the virtual expulsion of some ethnic groups from mixed communities is troubling and threatens the nation's stability, which depends on a degree of ethnic harmony. Some worry the purges are setting the early stages of civil war, saying that homogenous neighborhoods could become future battlegrounds in the capital.

Indeed, some government officials concede that insurgents, mainly Sunnis, are controlling parts of Baghdad.

"Civil war today is closer than any time before," said Hazim Abdel Hamid al Nuaimi, a professor of politics at al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. "All of these explosions, the efforts by police and purging of neighborhoods is a battle to control Baghdad."

"To the extent that families are moving out, neighborhood by neighborhood, that itself is a sign of civil war," said Noah Feldman, a constitutional expert at New York University who visited Iraq in 2003 with American officials.

In some Baghdad neighborhoods, residents are finding death threats under their doors or fliers signed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Iraq's most wanted terrorist, calling on Iraqis to kill their Shiite brethren. Others said their family members have been killed and that insurgents in Sunni neighborhoods have threatened Shiite clerics and shut down mosques.

A 22-year-old Baghdad University student said that in June, a Sunni militia group threatened to kill her family if they didn't move out of their home in Ghaziliyah, a mostly Sunni neighborhood.

The student, who didn't want to be identified because she feared for her life, said she and her family left two hours later. They haven't been back since; they are spread out in several Shiite neighborhoods.

Of the 70 homes on her former street, Shiite families used to live in 27 of them. Now, only two Shiite families remain, she said.

"Sometimes I think they targeted us because my brother was a police officer. But these terrorists are killing Shiite just for being Shiite," she said. "We will never be able to go back to our house again."

Before the war, different sects and religions mixed together in most Baghdad neighborhoods. Intermarriage was common. Friction existed, but it stemmed mainly from resentment over government preferences given to the minority Sunnis. Shiites directed most of their anger toward Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, not the neighbor down the street.

Residents said tensions between neighbors rarely became violent.

Families have been moving out of neighborhoods since the end of the war, in some instances because of sectarian tensions. Conflicts escalated after the January elections, which highlighted ethnic differences as many voters chose slates of candidates based on sects.

Neighborhoods have a long way to go before they're fully cleansed. While most of western Baghdad is Sunni and the east is largely Shiite, there are major exceptions, making it difficult for anyone to divide the city cleanly. No Baghdad neighborhood is made up solely of one sect.

Four neighborhoods are most affected by the purges: Doura, Amiriyah, Ghaziliyah and Sadiya, all newer western Baghdad neighborhoods.

In some cases, residents are abandoning homes and moving in with relatives who live in largely Shiite neighborhoods, most of them on the city's east side. Others are renting homes there.

In Amiriyah, one 28-year-old Shiite shop owner who feared giving his name said two of his Shiite customers were killed three weeks ago as they walked out of his shop.

When asked how he knew they were killed because of their religion, he became irate and said: "Watch television, and listen to what Zarqawi said."

The man said he's closed his shop and is looking to reopen in Kadhimiya, a mostly Shiite neighborhood.

Government officials said they must restore the security in neighborhoods and wrest control away from insurgents. But the nascent military and police forces still can't stand on their own. And in some of the most affected neighborhoods, police—made up mostly of Shiites—are the biggest target.

The government has no estimates on how many have fled because of sectarian strife.

Human Rights Minister Nermin Othman said her ministry receives up to 20 letters a week from residents asking for help. The government investigates their complaints, she said, files reports and tries to confirm if the complaints are true.

Officials concede that's not enough.

"I am worried. The situation is critical," said Adil Abdel Mahdi, Iraq's vice president. "There is a plan there to purge areas. Zarqawi is saying that, clearly."

Mahdi said the government is making progress and added that a new approved constitution will lead to more stability. Iraqis will vote on the proposed document next month. But others, including Feldman, said the constitution could create more division.

In Doura, the most troubled Baghdad neighborhood, deserted houses with fragmented windows covered by a layer of sand, are interspersed with occupied, busy households in good shape. The neighborhood is riddled with graffiti calling for jihad. And posters that call on residents to vote on next month's referendum on the constitution—plastered everywhere in most parts of the city—have been ripped down.

The area's major Shiite mosque is closed, and remnants of a car bomb last week remain because residents are too afraid to come to the mosque and clean it up.

Although most violence targets Shiites, Shiites have generally refrained from fighting back because clerics have told them not to. But some worry that the continued onslaught—and residents feeling forced out of their communities—could lead the Shiites to retaliate.

One National Assembly member, Ali Dabaugh, described the tensions as water rising against a weakening dam.

The emerging purification of neighborhoods isn't limited to Baghdad. In Najaf, a Shiite holy city, clerics opened a hotel for Shiites fleeing the northern city of Tal Afar. The residents fled several months before Iraqi and American officials launched an offensive there earlier this month to rid the city of insurgents.

Riath Noori, 38, a street vendor fled Tal Afar two weeks ago and moved into the hotel in Najaf. He has no plans to move his family of 11 back home.

"We had two choices—leave the city or take revenge. Our ayatollah said we cannot take revenge, and I don't want to go back to a city that reminds me of my pain."

In some areas, Sunnis are escaping Shiite neighbors, although that trend is less pronounced.

One Sunni cleric who asked to be identified as Abu Yasser said he recently left New Baghdad after armed men appeared before his house, carrying AK-47s. The men threw a grenade at his house, he said. Suspecting they were Shiite militiamen, Abu Yasser fled to Fallujah.

"It is not a place (New Baghdad) that I can live in anymore. And I wanted to stay there at whatever costs," Abu Yasser said.

Many Sunni families also have fled the predominantly Shiite southern city of Basra, which has become dominated by rival Shiite militia groups.

A Christian man living in the Doura neighborhood who asked to be identified as Ashur said he desperately wants to get out of Doura, but no one wants to buy his house. He's worried that after the Shiites leave, insurgents will begin targeting the Christians.

He added he wants to get out soonest because in the current environment, "today is always better than tomorrow."

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(Al Dulaimy is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050921 USIRAQ ETHNIC

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