Mixed Baghdad area falls apart

Sectarian fighting rages

Sunnis say they're being pushed out of neighborhood

February 06, 2007|By Louise Roug | Louise Roug,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- First the Shiite women came, seemingly to offer advice. "We think you should leave," they told their Sunni Arab neighbors. "You're under threat."

Less than a year later, Amel, a mixed neighborhood in southwestern Baghdad, has fallen apart.

Neighbor has turned on neighbor. Boys who grew up together look at each other through the sights of AK 47s.

Houses have been torched. Fathers, sons and brothers have disappeared.

Sunnis say they are being pushed out of the area by Shiites, supported by Iraqi security forces and black-clad Shiite militiamen.

For the second consecutive day yesterday, Sunnis and Shiites fought openly in this neighborhood abutting the road to Baghdad's international airport. At least seven people have been killed in the past two days in Amel, and Sunnis say the U.S. military is their only hope.

"Only the American forces can save us," said Anas Ahmed, a 22-year-old Sunni from Amel.

But most of the additional U.S. troops, intended by the Bush administration to make a large-scale effort to quell the sectarian fighting in the capital, have yet to arrive.

The security plan was announced by President Bush early last month, but there is little evidence of it on the streets, where bombings and shootings continue.

Sunnis flee

By the time the U.S. troops and their Iraqi counterparts arrive, Sunnis worry, they might be too late. In this disputed neighborhood, most of the Sunnis have been forced to flee to stay alive.

Like many others, Arkan Abu Noor, 40, said relations in the neighborhood deteriorated a year ago after Sunni insurgents bombed the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shiite shrines in Iraq.

Abu Noor, a Sunni policeman who preferred to be identified by a pseudonym for security reasons, said Shiite women in the Adel neighborhood began dropping veiled warnings to their Sunni neighbors that they might be killed if they stayed.

In this neighborhood, where nearly equal numbers of Sunnis and Shiites once lived, the Sunnis had felt safe until then. They had fought side by side with their Shiite neighbors to protect the neighborhood in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Last year's warnings, however, were followed by attacks on a number of Sunni mosques, several residents said in separate interviews.

Gunmen killed at least one Sunni cleric and drove away others. A Sunni mosque was heavily damaged in a bombing. Mortar shells rained down on another, crushing parts of its minaret.

Warning letters

Letters appeared, carrying bullets and not-so veiled warnings.

"We decided that you should be expelled from our neighborhood in order to make it peaceful," one letter began. "Remove your evil from our neighborhood in the next three days, or else you should be killed like dogs in the street." The letter was signed "God's Revenge."

Former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party received messages that were more profane and threatening.

"They turned against us, and now they're throwing these letters with bullets at us," said Abu Noor. "They are the sons of the neighborhood. They became members of the Mahdi Army [Shiite militia] and then they turned against us."

He and others said dozens of Sunni families fled after receiving the threats. In one tract of about 300 houses, the entire Sunni population has left, he said. This week, he, too, fled his house, on which others have told him Shiite militias have painted graffiti reading: "This house cannot be sold, it cannot be rented."

Shiites fearful

Shiites, too, are fearful

Mortars rain down on their houses from nearby Sunni neighborhoods, said Balqees Jebar a 24-year-old Shiite woman. Gunmen wearing track suits occupy the rooftops, keeping watch over the quiet but tense streets, she said.

Two days ago, "mortars started to fall on the houses and the Shiites of Amel decided to retaliate," she said. Climbing to her roof, she saw "gunmen spread across the neighborhood ... in an attempt to protect us. But the mortar fire continues."

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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