Neighborhood Peace a Casualty of War

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By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 11, 2006

BAGHDAD -- To generations of its residents, the tightknit neighborhood known as Tobji was among this city's rare oases. People argued amiably in sidewalk cafes kept open until nearly midnight. Shiite and Sunni Muslims married into each other's families and lived side-by-side. Until recently, Iraq's police and army, with more than enough trouble spots to worry about, rarely came around.

It was a neighborhood, residents said, that lived up to its formal name, Salam, which means peace. But in volatile Baghdad, home to more than 5 million people, even stable sections sit a few stray shots from chaos. It took scarcely two months for the sectarian conflict consuming other corners of the capital to gain a foothold in Tobji.

It began, residents say, one November day when gunmen killed Majid Abdul Hussein, a local preacher and member of a powerful Shiite militia. Days later, a former member of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led Baath Party was gunned down in broad daylight. Before locals realized it, they said, theirs had become yet another fractured community, a place nearly silent after dark save for the crackle of gunfire.

Then, on Jan. 23, men in camouflage uniforms rounded up 53 Tobji residents, nearly all of them Sunnis, in pre-dawn raids. Two people were killed. Other than two old men who were released days later, none of those taken have been heard from since.

Locals said the uniforms the gunmen wore and the vehicles they drove identified them as Interior Ministry police commandos, whose ranks are dominated by former members of Shiite factional militias. Since Iraq's Shiite majority first gained political power in elections a year ago, raids like the one in Tobji have taken place in neighborhoods in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. They always target Sunni men, and witnesses always implicate the police.

Iraqi officials have denied any government role in the raids, blaming groups intent on destabilizing the country.

"It happens too often that people impersonate government forces, impersonate police," said Baghdad's governor, Hussein Taha, who oversees his province's police force. "When the terrorists feel chased in one area, they transfer to another and carry out operations there randomly, even if it affects civilians. That is what happened to Tobji."

Asked how many Tobji residents have died violently in recent months, Mariam Nouri, 27, whose family came to the neighborhood more than 50 years ago, counted them by name.

"There's Hussein, Firas, Abbas, Osama, Uday," said Nouri, a Sunni, whose brother, father and uncle were dragged from her home during the recent raid. Hardly pausing for breath, she ticked off 11 of the dead from memory. "It might be more like 15," she said. "There are some I've forgotten."

Sunni leaders have responded to the raids in Tobji, northwest of downtown, and in other Baghdad neighborhoods by calling on residents to defend themselves. Adnan Dulaimi, a prominent Sunni Arab politician, called for further unrest unless the country's next government puts police beyond the control of Shiite militias. The Iraqi Accordance Front, the country's dominant Sunni political group, warned Wednesday of "nationwide civil disobedience" unless what it termed "haphazard raids" were halted.

Observers in the capital say the destructive cycle of raids, denunciations and retaliatory violence represents the first tentative steps toward a wider sectarian conflict spreading like a virus from community to community.

"It started in Iskan, then Sadiya and Ghazaliya," said Abbas Lafta, 35, a Shiite resident of Tobji, citing once-tranquil Baghdad enclaves that have fallen like dominoes toward his neighborhood in the past year. "People used to move here to get away from those places. Now we are one of them."


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