Shiites drive Sunnis from homes

At least 3 killed as militiamen force hundreds to flee

December 10, 2006|By New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq --Bands of armed Shiite militiamen stormed through a neighborhood in north-central Baghdad yesterday, driving hundreds of Sunni Arabs from their homes in what a Sunni colonel in the Iraqi army described as one of the most flagrant episodes of sectarian warfare yet unleashed in the capital.

The officer, Lt. Col. Abdullah Ramadan al-Jabouri, said that more than 100 Sunni families, many with very young children, had left the Hurriya neighborhood aboard a convoy of trucks and cars under cover of the nightly curfew. Government officials tried to urge the families to return by promising army protection but could not persuade them.

The fighting began about noon, when militiamen began rampaging through the only mixed district in Hurriya, a mostly Shiite neighborhood, and killed at least three Sunni Arabs.

One family was shot as they left their home, with a 20-year-old killed and his mother and younger brother wounded, according to an account given by the man's father, who was at work as a security guard elsewhere in the city at the time. The man said the three were hit by automatic rifle fire as they completed loading possessions into their car before driving to a safer area.

Al-Jabouri said that skirmishes set off by the militia attacks continued for about five hours, until sunset.

Meanwhile, a large convoy of Sunni Arabs waited in their vehicles outside the fortified Muhaimin mosque, waiting to drive to neighboring Sunni districts while local leaders negotiated with militiamen for safe passage. Many residents huddled in the open backs of trucks in the winter cold.

A Sunni cleric, Sayed Ahmed Muhammad, said the negotiations also involved appeals from top government officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, for the Sunni families to return to their homes in Hurriya under promise of Iraqi army protection. But the cleric said the assurances failed to persuade the Sunnis, whom he described as the last of more than 4,000 Sunnis to flee the area under Shiite militia threats in recent months.

The convoy set out after dark.

Al-Jabouri, the Iraqi military commander in the area, said his troops had tried to help groups of Sunnis protect themselves and their homes. But the large number of Shiite militiamen involved - whom he identified as belonging to the Mahdi Army, the most powerful Shiite militia - made that impossible.

He described the fighting as the worst eruption of sectarian skirmishing experienced by the Iraqi 6th Division, which shares responsibility for security in Baghdad with U.S. troops.

"As an Iraqi, I'm against sectarianism of any kind," he said. "I'm against any group that seeks to build barriers between people on the basis of their religion."

The role of U.S. troops in the turmoil was unclear. The Sunni cleric, Sayed Muhammad, said appeals for assistance from the 1st Cavalry Division, based about three miles southwest of Hurriya, had gone unanswered. But al-Jabouri said Iraqi commanders had told the Americans there was no need for their help. A 1st Cavalry Division spokesman said American advisers with Iraqi troops in Hurriya had reported only one instance of sectarian trouble, when Iraqi troops assisted a Shiite family under threat from Sunnis.

That account appeared to reflect the cyclical nature of the sectarian violence that has soared in Baghdad in recent months and has led to thousands of families fleeing mixed Sunni-Shiite areas for the safety of neighborhoods in which their own sect dominates.

Hurriya lies in an area of western Baghdad where there has been a surge of attacks on Sunnis living in Shiite-majority areas and vice versa. Just south of Hurriya lies Amariya, a Sunni Arab stronghold where scores of Shiite families have been driven out by attacks or threats from armed Sunnis.

Muhammad described the aim of the Shiite attacks yesterday as creating a Sunni-free corridor across northern Baghdad that would run from the Shula district on the city's northwestern edge to Kadhimiya, a Shiite stronghold on the west bank of the Tigris river. The main area of Shiite strength in the capital lies on the east bank of the Tigris, principally in Sadr City, which is home to about 2.5 million Shiites, about 40 percent of Baghdad's population.

"It's part of a much wider plan," Muhammad said. "What we're experiencing here is the Shiite groundwork for a civil war."

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