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Baghdad's moving crews on the front lines of sectarian violence

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Every morning, Saif Daham runs Baghdad's sectarian gantlet in a gray flatbed truck piled with televisions, air conditioners, baby clothes and anything else his customers can grab before gunmen force them from their homes.

He's shuttled Shiite Muslims out of Sunni neighborhoods, and Sunni Muslims out of Shiite neighborhoods. He once moved a displaced family into a decrepit garage and couldn't bring himself to ask for payment.

Another time, militiamen hissed "hurry up" and cocked their guns as Daham loaded a woman's furniture onto his truck. When she still refused to leave, he pried the sobbing woman's fingers from her gate.

"Can you imagine someone just coming and forcing you to move out of the home you own just because you're a Sunni or a Shiite?" asked Daham, 27, who's a Sunni. "The families are always crying and crying. Praying. Cursing the government. It's so difficult to watch."

Iraqi movers are front-line witnesses to the violent purges that are transforming this capital's once-diverse neighborhoods into a mosaic of hamlets cordoned off by religious sect. At great personal risk and for very little money, they race through hostile territory to help families pack heirlooms and electronics in the minutes before fleeing.

The movers' callused hands and sad eyes betray the hardships of a job that brings to life a grim United Nations statistic: Sectarian violence displaces 1,000 Iraqis each day.

"All this moving isn't just changing the character of Baghdad. It's destroying it," said Abu Zaid, a third-generation mover who was too scared to give his full name.

In 1941, Abu Zaid's grandfather bought a red Dodge pickup, said to be the first kind of truck that Iraq imported, and established a family moving business. Abu Zaid's father added a white Mercedes truck in the 1980s to deliver furniture to Sunni and Shiite residents in upscale, mixed-sect neighborhoods.

Now, Abu Zaid said, his own yellow Hino truck is reversing his family's work, depopulating the very neighborhoods that his father and grandfather helped to fill.

"We lived for years without thinking about what's a Sunni or what's a Shiite," he muttered with bitterness.

Abu Zaid, a towering, rotund man, stood Tuesday at an informal gathering place for movers along a main road that links the predominantly Sunni western part of Baghdad with the majority-Shiite east side.

Iraqis intimidated into leaving their homes cruise this strip to find movers whom they can trust to be discreet, quick and fearless. Sometimes, the movers said, customers lie about where they live, worrying that they'll be turned down because their neighborhoods are rife with snipers and fake checkpoints.

Relatively safe trips to Karrada or Zayuna run from $35 to $50 an hour; forays into the deadly districts of Jihad, Doura, Ghazaliyah or Ameriya can fetch $200 an hour or more.

"Once—only once—I went to Jihad," recalled Abu Zaid, 30, who's a Shiite. "It was to move in a Sunni woman who had to leave a Shiite neighborhood. The minute we reached Jihad, clashes broke out between Interior Ministry commandos and insurgents. All I could do was dump the furniture and get out of there.

"I parked in an alley and went to ask a policeman how I could escape. He told me, `OK, go back to your truck and when I give you the sign, make a run for it.'"

Six of Abu Zaid's friends, also movers, were killed in an ambush as they drove from Baghdad to the western city of Ramadi. Abu Zaid himself narrowly escaped death recently when he accepted a job moving a Shiite family out of the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Doura.

The family had received a message from insurgents ordering them to move or be killed. They'd fled the day the letter arrived, Abu Zaid said, and later accepted a Sunni neighbor's offer to rent the home so it wouldn't become an insurgent hideout. The family called Abu Zaid to help them retrieve a few belongings before they handed over the house.

"They'd left everything. They didn't even have clothes for winter," Abu Zaid said. "They called me and said, `Don't enter the area. Just wait by the main road.'"

Abu Zaid showed up in his truck and met the Shiite couple, accompanied by the Sunni neighbor and his wife. In a split-second decision, Abu Zaid opted to stay with his truck at the meeting point. He reasoned it was safest for the Shiite woman to return to her home escorted by the Sunni man.

"Some gunmen were waiting outside the house and they shouted at the man, `You brought a Shiite woman back into our area. You are a Sunni helping a Shiite?'" Abu Zaid said. "So they killed him, forced the woman to run away and then burned the house to the ground with all the furniture still inside."

The risks are so great that many movers work solely with clientele recommended by relatives or close friends—and even that doesn't guarantee safe passage.

A 33-year-old Shiite mover who gave his name only as Abu Hussein said he granted an old Sunni friend a favor by moving the man's cousin to the Sunni neighborhood of Ameriya. The customer's home had been taken over by a Shiite militia, and he was seething when he climbed into Abu Hussein's 2-ton Kia.

"His cousin was cursing the Shiites and saying, `If I see one, I'll do the same to him.' He was mad and shouting," Abu Hussein recounted. "When I dropped him off, I was still afraid until I left the area. The minute I got to the highway and felt safe, I had to stop the truck to catch my breath. I drank some water, washed my face and drove home."

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(McClatchy special correspondent Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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