Iraqi capital's bonds ripped apart by war

March 04, 2007|By New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq --After centuries of vibrant interaction, of marrying, sharing and selling across sects and classes, Baghdad has become a capital of corrosive, violent borderlines. Streets never crossed. Conversations never broached. Doors never entered.

Sunnis and Shiites in many professions now interact almost exclusively with colleagues of the same sect. Sunnis say they are afraid to visit hospitals because Shiites loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr run the Health Ministry, while Shiite laborers who used to climb into the back of pickup trucks for work across the Tigris River in Sunni western Baghdad now take jobs only near home.

The goal of the new Baghdad security plan is to fix all of this - to fashion a peace that stitches the city's cleaved neighborhoods back together. And three weeks into the effort, there are a few signs of progress. The number of bodies found daily across the capital has decreased to 20 or fewer from previous totals of 35 to 50. In some areas closely patrolled by American troops, a few of the families that fled the violence are said to be returning to their homes.

But even in the neighborhoods that are improving or are relatively calm, borders loom everywhere. Streets once crossed without a thought in Baghdad are now bullet-riddled and abandoned danger zones, the front lines of a block-by-block war among Shiite militias, Sunni insurgents, competing criminal gangs and Iraqi and American troops.

Some Americans who have been in both Bosnia and Iraq say Baghdad is increasingly looking like Sarajevo in the 1990s, latticed with boundaries that are never openly indicated but are passed on in fearful whispers among neighbors who have suffered horrific losses.

Like jagged wounds, the boundaries mark histories of brutal violence. And for Iraqis, they underscore a vital question at the heart of the new plan: Can scarred neighborhoods ever heal?

Forsaken street

Sybaa Street used to be wall-to-wall people: Sidewalks were crammed with shoppers, and roads were snarled with cars as horns honked. In the heart of central Baghdad, Sybaa was known as the road to get from the automotive shops on one side of the city's market district to the hardware stores on the other.

Back then - as recently as two years ago, residents said - no one seemed to care that it was the border between the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil and the largely Shiite areas to the south, Sadriya and Sheik Omar.

But that has all changed. After six months of fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, Sybaa Street is deserted and forsaken. On a recent afternoon, the only sign of life was a lone mechanic working inside a dark garage, his efforts lighted by a single bulb. Bullets from earlier battles punctured nearly everything - buildings, utility poles, even rusted mufflers hanging outside shuttered shops.

Um Shaima, 48, a garrulous Sunni widow who used to sell yogurt in the Sadriya market, lives just north of Sybaa Street in Fadhil. She said she used to visit the stores there to buy clothes. Her cousin Samir worked for years on the Sadriya side of Sybaa Street as a mechanic without any trouble.

Then a few months ago, Shaima said, he received a threat. "They told him, `You are a Sunni, and all Sunnis are infidels and their women are prostitutes, so stop coming to Sadriya, or you will be killed,'" she said.

"He didn't listen," she added.

The next day, he was kidnapped. Witnesses said Shiite militants yanked him off his motorcycle and threw him in the trunk of a sedan.

"They called his wife at 9 a.m. the next day," Shaima said, "telling her that they will kill all the Sunnis, and your husband is dead."

A Shiite nephew of Samir's later recovered his uncle's mutilated body from a trash pile east of Baghdad.

Shaima said her two sons began to carry guns at night to protect her and her neighbors.

On the other side of the border, in Sadriya, lies a mirror image of anger and fear. The response is similar, too: young men with guns who view themselves as protectors, who justify violence as the reasonable response to violence.

Nazar Sharif Abd Hussein, 35, a carpenter and a self-described militant with the Mahdi Army militia, said he did not hate all Sunnis; one of his sisters who lives outside of Baghdad just married one.

In a recent interview, Hussein hardly looked fierce, at 5 feet, 7 inches tall, wearing jeans and a gray sweater, with a short beard and sunken dark eyes. But he said he could be vicious when called upon because Sunni gangsters and insurgents in Fadhil had shown no respect for life.

Last May, he said, his 17-year-old best friend, Salar, was shot dead while they both guarded an area near the edge of Fadhil. He said that Salar was wearing a flak jacket but that a stream of .50-caliber bullets perforated his side and ripped through his chest.

"I still remember that night," Hussein said, adding, "He was standing in the middle of the street."

Whom to trust?

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