Sectarian Fighting Changes Face of Conflict for Iraqis

The family of Bassam Fariq Daash, a Shiite Muslim auto mechanic, is taking refuge at a school converted into a refugee center in northern Baghdad after threats forced them to flee their mainly Sunni village north of the capital.
The family of Bassam Fariq Daash, a Shiite Muslim auto mechanic, is taking refuge at a school converted into a refugee center in northern Baghdad after threats forced them to flee their mainly Sunni village north of the capital. (By Ellen Knickmeyer -- The Washington Post)

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 13, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 12 -- Forced by Sunni Arab insurgents to flee his home, Bassam Fariq Daash, a 34-year-old Shiite auto mechanic, bid a weeping goodbye Tuesday to the Sunnis who had been his neighbors for a lifetime.

Forced by marauding Shiite militiamen to defend his home, Firas Ali, a 28-year-old Sunni Arab medical technician, takes up an AK-47 and joins his Sunni and Shiite neighbors every night between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. at garden gates, at roadblocks made of felled palm trunks and on the roof of his mosque.

The past two weeks have changed the war in Iraq, shifting its focus from a U.S.-driven fight against Sunni insurgents to a direct battle for power and survival between Iraq's empowered Shiite majority and disempowered Sunni minority. On Sunday, three car bombings in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City killed about 50 people, the deadliest string of sectarian attacks since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra touched off a wave of retaliatory killings.

The bombing, which blew the gold-plated dome of the Askariya mosque into naked gray concrete, did not set off the battle between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite blocs. Their enmity stretches back centuries, and ever since U.S. troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, the two sides have been grappling to find their new footing.

But the bloodshed that has followed the shrine bombing, as Shiite religious parties unleashed their militias on a large scale in Baghdad for the first time, laid bare the sectarian rift -- and worsened it. Some Iraqis and international figures have expressed worry whether Iraq, having come to the brink of civil war, can keep itself from sliding in.

Last week, Daash fled his predominantly Sunni village of Awad, north of Baghdad on the edge of the Sunni town of Taji, after what he said were too many death threats from Sunni insurgents after the mosque bombing, and too many bodies of Shiite men left bullet-riddled on roadsides. "I will never go back," he said.

Iraqis have prided themselves on intermarriages as the glue that would always keep Iraq from splitting apart. They point to the mingling of Shiite, Sunni and Christian, and of Arab and Kurd. But sitting in a school converted into a refugee center in the Shiite neighborhood of Shoula in north Baghdad, Daash found himself unable to imagine ever living among his Sunni neighbors again, or ever again visiting an aunt and cousin in Tikrit who are married to Sunnis.

"I don't think that it will be possible to go back to the way we were," he said.

Baghdad has calmed since the mosque bombing, partly because the city's nightly curfew was moved up three hours to 8 p.m. But Baghdad and Iraq have nevertheless begun to look like Lebanon during that country's 15-year civil war. Green lines and red lines have sprung up between neighborhoods, and complex rivalries have grown among myriad factions pursuing political aims with armed militias.

In north Baghdad, men selling tomatoes, oranges and potatoes stacked bright pyramids this weekend in Shoula, a neighborhood controlled by the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and bemoaned the drop in customers since the Samarra bombing.

Drawn by the cheaper prices for fruits and vegetables, shoppers from Ghaziliyah, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood adjacent to Shoula, used to cross over to shop. Since Feb. 22, though, the two-lane road that forms the two neighborhoods' boundary has become an invisible barrier between Sunni and Shiite. Business is "not as good as it used to be," one vendor said Saturday. "They're not coming over here like they used to."

Checkpoints set up by Iraqi security forces now mark the otherwise imperceptible boundaries between some neighborhoods. Uniformed gunmen from Iraq's many ambiguous and shifting security forces and militias scan passing traffic, sticking their heads in rolled-down windows to question motorists, in search of anyone who looks like an outsider and a possible threat.


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