Sectarian militias reshape Baghdad

Gunmen employ fear and violence to transform mixed neighborhoods

January 12, 2007|By Solomon Moore | Solomon Moore,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Mohammed Rubaie, 28, is the sort of person whom President Bush's new Baghdad security plan was designed to protect. But for him and his neighborhood and many like it across this city, the plan comes months too late.

One of the chief rationales for sending five additional U.S. brigades to Baghdad is to secure the city's mixed neighborhoods, U.S. military planners say. If residents feel they are safe in their homes, they will no longer turn to sectarian militias to protect them, the strategists argue.

But many of the districts that U.S. planners might have wanted to protect already have been taken over by sectarian gunmen and their allies. Formerly mixed areas have been transformed by fear and violence. Standing in their place are militantly sectarian communities, their borders hardened by concrete barriers and vigilante-run checkpoints.

Hurriya, which Rubaie used to call home, was one of those mixed neighborhoods -- a place in Baghdad's northwestern corner where Sunnis and Shiites lived in relative peace.

But this fall, the militias saw to it that Hurriya would no longer be mixed. One harrowing October night, "there were two gunmen dressed in black, with the police backing them up. They were saying, `Sunnis, you should leave now. It's the last warning to you all. We're going to burn your houses one by one,'" Rubaie said.

"When our neighbor's house was burned, I felt it was time for us to leave," he said.

Rubaie's family joined a widening flood of Baghdad residents who have abandoned their home districts as the violence between Shiite militiamen and Sunni Arab insurgents has reshaped Baghdad's neighborhoods. In some cases, the violence has tilted local demographics from one sect to the other. In other neighborhoods, it has consolidated sectarian populations and hardened religious boundaries.

The United Nations estimates that at least 300,000 Baghdad residents have fled the country since 2003, when Baghdad's population was about 6 million. In the past 11 months, since the February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra triggered Iraq's spiral into civil war, roughly 60,000 Baghdad residents left their homes for other neighborhoods in the capital, according to Iraq's Ministry of Migration and Displacement.

Over the past year, the battle lines within the capital have shifted steadily to the west -- deep into what was formerly the center of Sunni population in the city. A year ago, many people here considered the Tigris River, which snakes through center of the capital, a rough boundary between the predominantly Sunni west bank and the largely Shiite east side. But Shiite militias, who are widely believed to have seized the advantage in Baghdad, have pushed the battle lines across the river into places like Hurriya. By contrast, Sunni Arab fighters have been unable to sustain advances into east Baghdad.

"They're both taking territory from each other, but the Shiites have the upper hand in Baghdad because of Sadr's movement," said a U.S. adviser, referring to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army militia. "They're very aggressively taking over areas and putting Shiite families into Sunni homes." The adviser spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The militias are often backed up by sectarian elements within Iraq's security forces. U.S. officials said they hoped the infusion of new troops would halt sectarian sweeps but acknowledged that in the meantime, the fighting is likely to get worse.

"Both sides are solidifying their ground right now," said the adviser.

U.S. advisers say that the best they can hope for with Bush's new plan is to stop future ethnic cleansing campaigns and to hold Baghdad's skewed demographics as they are, leaving restoration of abandoned, plundered and commandeered homes and neighborhoods for another day. The balkanization of Baghdad's neighborhoods also raises the specter of future clashes if residents who have been cast out decide to return and retake their domiciles.

The Sunni exodus from Hurriya illustrates the dynamics of sectarian cleansing. When Shiite fighters pushed out the Sunni residents, they fled south into the nearby community of Adil, where Sunnis were in the majority, and drove out the Shiites.

When Adnan Duleimi, a Sunni Arab parliament member, hosted peace negotiations with local Shiites at an mosque, five mortar rounds struck the building and derailed the talks.

Sheik Mahmoud Abu Abdullah, a spokesman for the Muslim Scholars Association, a hard-line Sunni clerics group, said Shiites have been so successful in their assaults because they comprise the majority in Baghdad and have the backing of Iraqi security forces.

"First the militias raid a Sunni area, conduct assassinations, kidnappings," he said. "Then when the people resist, they distribute threatening pamphlets in the area. If pamphlets don't work, the Iraqi security forces come in."

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