Iraqis no longer ask, 'Are you Sunni or Shiite?'

A child stands near a river of sewage in the street where he lives in central Baghdad. Squatters who were displaced from their homes or could no longer afford rent set up makeshift homes on public property.
A child stands near a river of sewage in the street where he lives in central Baghdad. Squatters who were displaced from their homes or could no longer afford rent set up makeshift homes on public property. Leila Fadel / MCT

BAGHDAD — For years, when she approached Iraqi Army checkpoints and produced an identification card for soldiers to study for clues about her sect, Nadia Hashim used a simple formula to signal the mostly Shiite Muslim force that she, too, is a Shiite.

"I am one of you," she'd say.

The soldiers would harass Sunnis, but they'd simply wave Hashim through.

Now her pat line gets her an official reproach.

When a relative used it recently, a soldier admonished the driver and the passengers. "'We are Iraqis, and you shouldn't say such a thing,' " recalled Hashim.

The 35-year-old mother of three said that for her and countless other Iraqis, the fact that soldiers are now using nationalist rather than sectarian language is a significant change. Being a Shiite is no longer key to her survival.

With violence subsiding throughout Baghdad, residents said that sectarianism is becoming less pervasive. They're starting to think of themselves as Iraqis, not as hostages to hyphenated, sectarian identities.

Residents said they visit relatives in neighborhoods of opposite sects. Taxi drivers said they can travel around blast walls to neighborhoods outside their own sect. Sunnis can get medical care at Shiite-run hospitals.

Shiites can share a minibus with Sunnis without fearing that they'll be signaled out at an illegal checkpoint. Teachers no longer feel pressure to give students of one sect higher grades than they give their classmates in another sect.

Most Iraqis, however, aren't convinced that the drop in sectarian violence, now at its lowest levels since March 2004, according to the U.S. military, will last.

Instead, they think that the violence will continue to swing like a pendulum along with the security situation. Indeed, periodic spurts of violence remind residents that Sunni and Shiite extremist groups are still warring. On Sunday, a truck bomb killed at least 12 people in northern Baghdad, and a roadside bomb killed six more south of the capital. Last month, a string of bombings in Baghdad and Kirkuk killed more than 50 people in one day.

"The situation is better, but how much better? And is it real?" asked Muhenned Nebeel, a 29-year-old Sunni from western Baghdad. "My maternal uncle is Shiite, and before, they were unable to visit us at all. Now they do visit us, regularly. But at the same time they have to be careful not to make themselves conspicuous — just in case."

But for now, Iraqis told McClatchy, they're trying to embrace the improved security and do things such as visit relatives of other sects whom they haven't seen for years.

According the statistics compiled by the U.S. military, about 1,600 civilians were killed in "ethno-sectarian" incidents in Baghdad in December 2006, at the height of violence, compared to handful who've been killed in sectarian violence since May.

The question "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" resurfaced at the height of sectarian violence around the fall of 2005, when armed factions began forcing rival sects out of neighborhoods in a block-by-block sweep of the capital.

Sunni extremists asked the question of minibus passengers to determine whom to pull out and slaughter. Shiite militiaman asked it of homeowners as they swept through neighborhoods and ethnically cleansed them, and Iraqis turned to their sects for protection that neither the Iraqi government nor the U.S. military provided.

In an interview last week with McClatchy, Gen. David Petraeus, the top American military commander in Iraq, conceded that at one time, firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia was a legitimate force that Shiites needed to protect themselves from Sunni extremist groups such as al Qaida in Iraq.

Iraqis began subtly dropping questions in conversations with friends, colleagues and neighbors to ascertain their sects. What is your tribe, they'd ask. What part of Baghdad are you from, especially after the ethnic cleansing and walling off of the capital.

The question has long been considered offensive in Iraq, where residents prided themselves on nationalism.

During Saddam Hussein's time, though, one's sect became more important the higher an employee rose in government.

Saddam, although he was a secular Sunni, tended to promote other Sunnis and members of his Tikriti tribe, even though Iraq is roughly 60 percent Shiite. A Shiite Army officer knew that he could rise only so far in the ranks. A Sunni bureaucrat generally had a better chance of leading parts of a ministry.

With Sunni and Shiite extremists no longer controlling checkpoints and neighborhoods, residents now fear the question less. These days at a checkpoint, instead of asking residents where they're headed, Army officers' eyes slide across Iraqi identification cards as they try to figure out a person's sect.

"We used to be terrified of the forces manning checkpoints because they had the authority to question us, and we just didn't know which way to lie," said Mahmoud Alaa Saeed, a shop owner who recently reopened his business. "They could be anything. Now we fear only about 25 percent of them, which we can call a development."

"All we want is to be able to enter any neighborhood without having to make calculations. Walk down streets without fear; be able to make new friends. Right now we still can't," said Saaed, the mobile phone owner.

Nowadays, sectarian rhetoric is most often found in the Iraqi parliament. Nearly all the legislators were elected on sectarian slates, and while parliament speaker Mahmoud Mashadani, a Sunni, often admonishes members for being sectarian, the issue still appears in legislation. When considering provincial elections in oil-rich Kirkuk, for example, some legislators proposed divvying up the province based on sect.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite, is trying to convince the populace that he isn't sectarian. Residents said a better security situation isn't enough to eliminate sectarianism. It must be out of the government, too.

(McClatchy special correspondents Sahar Issa and Laith Hammoudi contributed.)

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