Iraqi exiles divided by sect, but united by anxiety over warring homeland


Kareem Mohammed, left, talks with Waleed Khohor, center, about the situation in their home country of Iraq as Mohammed's son Abbas Hadi stands by at Sinbad cafe, owned by Mohammed, in Alexandria, Va. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Kareem Mohammed, the proprietor of Sinbad cafe in Alexandria, lives a busy and successful life thousands of miles from Iraq. A Shiite married to a Sunni, he employs bakery workers of three faiths and loves debating Iraqi politics with customers as they smoke hookahs and watch Arabic-language newscasts over tiny glass cups of sweet Iraqi tea.

But as Mohammed’s embattled homeland teeters on the brink of a violent sectarian breakup, the 42-year-old refu­gee finds himself pulled in two directions: yearning to join the battle against the Sunni extremist militia known as ISIS back home, yet hoping to help prevent sectarian tensions from further dividing the Iraqi exile community here.

“If Obama gives me a plane and a gun, I will fly to Iraq and fight them myself,” the former Iraqi army sergeant said, clenching his fists. On the cafe wall, a giant screen showed yet another Iraqi city falling to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

But if part of Mohammed was itching to get involved, another part was lamenting the demise of a more peaceful and tolerant society that raised him to respect Sunni and Shiite, Christian and Kurd alike. On a recent trip home to Baghdad, he was shocked by the religious “walls” that had risen everywhere.

“Everything has erupted. Nobody trusts their neighbor anymore,” he said, shaking his head. “Sectarianism is in the blood.” Among Iraqi emigres, he added, tensions are also building, but “things are more subtle. We don’t kill each other because we are in America. It is a modern form of sectarianism.”

Abbas Hadi, 20, adjusts a fan in the window of his father's eatery/bakery. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Increasingly, Mohammed and other members of the Washington region’s large Iraqi exile community fear that the religious hostility being fanned by the violent ISIS offensive and that the attendant rumors of skulduggery by regional Sunni and Shiite powers will shatter the polite but uneasy modus vivendi that Iraqis and other Muslim exile groups have maintained between their two dominant sects until now.

In conversations this week, a number of area Iraqis expressed the same concern, though mostly through hints and euphemisms. There was no talk of anger or betrayal, but a sense of distance and segregation, of seeing things through different prisms. Many Iraqi exiles from both sects are educated professionals, including engineers, teachers and business owners.

Sunnis and Shiites differ on certain core liturgical and historic aspects of Islam, with each group tilting, respectively, toward Saudi Arabia and Iran. They tend to worship at different mosques and socialize with families from the same group. Until now, however, no overt conflict or dispute between the sects has spilled over to the emigre community.

“A lot of us have been involved in meetings and peace pacts just to make sure our communities rise above sectarian issues in their countries,” said Ibrahim Hooper, an official at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group based in Washington. “Being here and enjoying so much freedom and diversity, we should leverage that instead of being dragged into conflicts.”

But the situation in Iraq is growing nastier by the day. People are worried for the safety of their relatives in areas overrun by ISIS. Sunnis fear being targeted by the extremists and accused of collaborating with them. Shiite fighters, called to arms by their leaders, are replacing trained state forces. The specter of regional chaos looms.

Some local Iraqis are seeking un­or­tho­dox ways to reinforce empathy and tolerance in the diaspora. Haitham Almayahi, a graduate student at Howard University, heads the group Iraqi American Youth, which focuses on sectarian bridge-building. This weekend, they are putting on a play in the District about a bombing in a market, with volunteers portraying Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish and Christian victims as well as the attacker.

“Our goal is to build right-thinking youth who would never be lured into joining a terror group,” said Almayahi, 38. “Unfortunately,” he added, young Iraqis in the United States are often “segregated” by the religious views and guidance of their parents, leading to mistrust and misinformation. “I tell everyone who joins our group that you are an Iraqi and an American, not a Sunni or a Shiite.”

Others are trying to organize public protests that convey a common message against violence and sectarian hate. This week, a group of exiles gathered in a hotel in Springfield, Va., to discuss how to promote and prepare for a protest this weekend in front of the White House. They wanted to speak with one voice but were afraid of offending any one group. They wanted to condemn ISIS but not tar all Sunnis. They wanted to criticize the elected Shiite-led government in Baghdad but support democracy.

“Look, we have to focus. When a patient is in the emergency room, you do what is needed to save him first,” said Hamida Hussein, 49, a doctor who was scribbling notes on a prescription pad. The ISIS offensive, she added, is “like a virus or parasite that has come to destroy our country, and everyone is in danger.”

Next to her, a man was scrolling on his iPhone, testing possible slogans for the rally. He finally suggested several, such as “Preserve Iraqi Freedom” or “Stop Spilling Iraqi Blood.” The others nodded. Both seemed bland and vague, but it was the best they could do.

There was also confusion and debate among the group about what message to send officials in Washington, a decade after the invasion and occupation that left a bitter taste and a growing sectarian power struggle. Some Shiites believe that Washington is secretly supporting the Sunni insurgents, while some Sunnis fear the United States plans to draw Iran into negotiations over their future.

While no exile leaders want American troops to return, many see the Obama administration as their only hope to shore up the Iraqi government and military and prevent the country’s complete collapse.

“We do not want American boots — we want American intelligence and air support,” said Khassan Rafed, a former university professor in Iraq who lives in Springfield and is leading the effort to organize the weekend White House rally. “This is something we never expected to happen. These criminals are doing atrocities under the banner of Allah. They are defaming all Muslims, and they have to be stopped.”

At Sinbad’s cafe Tuesday afternoon, a man named Walid Khodor was watching the TV news, then sighed and turned away. He said he and his wife had just had a son, but he could not find it in his heart to celebrate with Iraq under siege.

“I love my country, and I want life there to be like it is for us here in America — happy and healthy, with good security and schools,” said Khodor, 33. “I am afraid for my parents and my sister back in Baghdad, but if I go there and get killed, there will be nobody to protect my wife and kids,” he said. “I am just too sad.”

Pamela Constable covers immigration issues and immigrant communities. A former foreign correspondent for the Post based in Kabul and New Delhi, she also reports periodically from Afghanistan and other trouble spots overseas.

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