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Residents of Baghdad neighborhood take security into own hands

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a nation being pulled apart by sectarian violence, the residents of a religiously mixed neighborhood in this troubled capital are joining forces for their mutual protection.

Alarmed at an outbreak of brazen killings in their once relatively peaceful enclave of Hai al-Salam, Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Christians have begun working side-by-side to guard their western Baghdad neighborhood.

Yet just as the fate of newly democratic Iraq depends on whether national leaders can cooperate in spite of religious and ethnic differences, Hai al-Salam's remarkable unity also depends on whether residents can resist growing pressure to splinter violently along sectarian lines.

"We managed to unify," said Kamil Tahir al-Bidhani, a neighborhood civic leader. "We expect the government to do the same thing: to solve its problems without resorting to force."

Only recently has Hai al-Salam, which means "neighborhood of peace" in Arabic, become a neighborhood of fear.

Kidnappings, assassinations and random violence have plagued other Baghdad neighborhoods since not long after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003. Meanwhile, Hai al-Salam remained the mostly quiet community that it had been for generations.

Sunnis, Shiites and Christians continued to coexist happily and even to intermarry, and residents packed cafes and markets well into the night. Elsewhere in Baghdad, sectarian violence spurred residents to flee, leaving behind increasingly segregated neighborhoods of closed curtains and shuttered shops.

Then two months ago, armed men began to attack people in Hai al-Salam. They killed Sunnis and Shiites, gunning down people with no role, or at most a perceived role, in Iraq's deadly political, insurgent or sectarian intrigues. The murders occurred as often as every other day, sometimes on the street in front of horrified onlookers.

"We had been united since the fall of the regime," said Fadel Khalaf Jassam, imam of Hai al-Salam's Sunni mosque. "The area remained safe until recently, when specific groups set out to promote sectarianism."

Baghdad police and the Iraqi Army conceded they could do little to protect the neighborhood from the new threats. Stretched thin by their fight against the Sunni-led insurgency, police and Army officials only occasionally and briefly dispatched forces to Hai al-Salam.

"We do not have enough policemen," said General Adnan Abdul-Rahman, Interior Ministry spokesman. An Iraqi Army commander recently promised to dispatch soldiers to the neighborhood but without assurances that they would remain for long.

So, the neighborhood's residents took the initiative, said Jassam. "We, the imams of the Sunni and the Shiite mosques and the city hall, held a meeting to protect the area."

Neighborhood leaders decided to disregard previous Iraqi Interior Ministry and U.S. military objections to residents mounting their own armed defense. With the blessing of neighborhood civil officials, they erected roadblocks and checkpoints and put neighborhood men to work as guards.

Sunnis, Shiites and Christians armed with AK-47 assault rifles and pistols serve eight-hour shifts watching the remaining three routes into and out of the neighborhood. They stop and question strangers and search suspicious vehicles for illicit weapons.

"We formed these checkpoints because we do not have a police station in the area," said Sunni guard Ala'addin Mahdi Salih, 45. "Even if we depended on the government, by the time the police come it would be too late."

A committee of Shiite, Sunni and civic leaders manages the guards and has begun collecting money from neighborhood households to pay the 50 or so men about $650 a month. Guards said they signed up not just for the money.

"It is our duty to protect my area, my friends and my family," said Shiite guard Amir Ali, a 37-year-old former officer in the Saddam-era Iraqi Army. "We never worked (together) like this during Saddam."

The checkpoints began almost three weeks ago and greatly reduced the number and frequency of attacks, said neighborhood leaders and guards.

But the fragile effort could fall apart in the wake of a raid on the neighborhood late last month that increased sectarian tensions.

What appeared to be Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry forces hauled away about 30 residents and two were killed during the early morning raid. All but two of those taken were Sunni, including one of the neighborhood checkpoint guards.

The raid "confused and terrified people here," said al Bidhani, the neighborhood leader.

It drove the wedge between Sunnis and Shiites deeper, casting further suspicion on all as residents began wondering who among them were the informants. If the detained Sunnis turn up dead, as have others snatched in similar raids, reprisal killings by Shiites could follow.

"I have never differentiated between Sunni and Shiite," said Omar Nouri Rasheed, 26, a Sunni resident whose house was raided. "But now I will, as long as they want that. ... Sunnis have become threatened in Iraq."

For now, the once peaceful neighborhood is uneasy. Fearful that gunmen or Interior Ministry men or sectarian reprisals will strike at any moment, many people are too afraid even to sleep, said one resident who was so frightened he refused to give his name.

"They wait for the dawn prayer," the man said. "They pray to God to keep the evil away."


(Huda is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent. Hannah reports for The Contra Costa Times.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.