By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
BAGHDAD, Feb. 28 -- Salim Rashid, 34, a Shiite laborer in an overwhelmingly Sunni Arab village 20 miles north of Baghdad, received his eviction notice Friday from a man at the door with a rocket launcher.
"It's 6 p.m.," Rashid recounted the masked man saying then, as retaliatory violence between Shiites and Sunnis exploded across wide swaths of central Iraq. "We want you out of here by 8 p.m. tomorrow. If we find you here, we will kill you."
Walking, hitchhiking and hiring cars, the Rashid clan and many of the 25 other families evicted from the town of Mishada had made their way by Tuesday to a youth center in Baghdad's heavily Shiite neighborhood of Shoula. There, other people forced from their homes were already sharing space on donated mattresses.
With sectarian violence rampant since last week's bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, the families have become symbols of an emerging trend in Iraq: the expulsion of Shiites from Sunni towns.
New, deadly attacks -- many of them apparently retaliatory sectarian assaults -- surged Tuesday, with 66 people killed, according to Iraqi police. The decision to lift a curfew in Baghdad on Monday appeared to have opened the way for a resumption of intense bombings, including explosions at three Shiite mosques that killed at least 19 people. Some of Tuesday's other victims included 23 people killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad as they waited in line to buy kerosene; five Iraqi soldiers killed in a car bombing in the capital's Zayona district; and one U.S. soldier killed by small-arms fire west of the capital, authorities and news agencies said.
Attacks on Shiite and Sunni holy sites had been rare in Iraq until last Wednesday, when bombers blew the gold-plated top off the shrine in Samarra, a heavily Sunni city about 65 miles north of Baghdad. The attack unleashed what many people here vowed would never happen: sectarian warfare in Iraq.
"One of those men told me, 'You started this, by burning our mosques and killing our people,' " said Rashid's grown nephew, kneeling with other men from the displaced families. Around them, black-shrouded women drank tea and children napped or played.
At least 58 dislodged Shiite families have come to Shoula since late last week, said Raad al-Husseini, a cleric who is helping the families settle in.
Husseini credited the organization of Moqtada al-Sadr, an outspoken Shiite cleric and growing political force in Iraq -- along with the people of the neighborhood -- for coming to the refugees' aid with blankets, clothing, and pots of stew and rice.
Husseini did not know the total number of displaced people in Shoula, but Rashid, the laborer, said about 200 had left his town.
Many of the newcomers have settled with relatives or even strangers. Rashid said others had decided to keep walking past Shoula, to some of the nearly homogeneous Shiite towns of the south, finding safety among people of their own sects.
In one room at the youth center, volunteers folded up a Ping-Pong table and swept a floor for the newest refugee family, that of Rahim Abood Sahan, 60. They arrived after a three-day trek -- walking by day, and taking shelter in strangers' homes at night -- from the village of Haswah, south of Baghdad.
Like Rashid, Sahan set out from his home when men he didn't recognize knocked on his door with a message: Get out in two days or you will all be killed.
The only possession that Sahan brought with him was draped over his forearm: his gray suit jacket.
When Sahan's family made it to Baghdad on Tuesday, they received word from other neighbors who had made the trip by car that at least one other Shiite family who ignored the warning had been killed, Sahan said.
Fearing the same fate, nine Shiite families in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, were packing up Tuesday afternoon.
"Armed men left a threatening letter at my doorstep," said Hussein Mohammed Ali, loading his pickup truck.
Fallujah city officials had promised that police officers would patrol near the targeted families' houses. But the families "insisted on leaving, fearing their children would be killed when they went to school," said Khalaf Daham, deputy director of Fallujah's city council.
Sunni sheiks in Fallujah also had promised to safeguard their Shiite neighbors, said Ibrahim Awwad, the chief sheik of the Sunni Albu Issa tribe. "But they had doubts about our ability to protect them, and decided to leave," Awwad said.
Other Washington Post staff members contributed to this report.