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Sectarian Fighting Changes Face of Conflict for Iraqis

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.

Other neighborhoods, such as Dora, are no-go zones for nearly everyone except residents too poor to move elsewhere. Sunni insurgents frequently lob mortar rounds into the Shiite neighborhood on Baghdad's southern edge, occasionally drawing a riposte of U.S. artillery rounds aimed at the insurgent-friendly farms outside of Dora.

In Dora and elsewhere around Baghdad, gunmen step out of cars, riddle businessmen or boys selling black-market gasoline with bullets, then drive off again, without warning or explanation to victims or terrified onlookers.

The shifting focus of Iraq's war does not mean the fight against the insurgency has ended. Bombings attributed to insurgents have held steady. But execution-style shootings of the kind frequently blamed on Shiite militias and police have skyrocketed since mid-2005, claiming more lives monthly now than bombings, according to figures from Baghdad's morgue.

"Sectarian violence now has become the No. 1 problem in Iraq, more than the insurgency. Or on a par" with the insurgency, said Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the U.N. envoy to Iraq. Gen. John P. Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, said last week that "sectarian violence is a greater concern for us security-wise right now than the insurgency."

Iraq's main means of controlling the factions -- the U.S.-backed government and its new military -- are themselves fractured along sectarian lines. Three months after national elections for what is to be the first full-term government since Hussein's overthrow, Iraq's leaders missed a deadline Sunday for parliament to meet. Bickering over the reappointment of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, a Shiite, has divided even the Shiite governing coalition.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad appeared to strong-arm factional political leaders into at least opening full-scale talks on the impasse Sunday, at the home of a Kurdish leader in Baghdad's Green Zone. But few politicians will risk embarrassment with a prediction of how many weeks, or months, it will take to form a government.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last week said the United States would look to Iraqi forces to quell any civil war that broke out. But voting patterns on army bases in December's elections suggested that the majority of Iraq's armed forces were either Shiite Arabs or Kurds, although the United States is promoting efforts to recruit and keep more Sunni Arab soldiers. Interior Ministry police forces are predominantly Shiite as well. When Shiite militia fighters poured out of Baghdad's Sadr City after the Samarra bombing, police stood aside for the vehicles carrying men holding rocket launchers and automatic rifles.

"They haven't come by at all," Ali, the Sunni medical technician, said of Iraqi security forces. A man with neatly pressed clothes and thinning hair parted in the middle, Ali lives in one of several Sunni and mixed neighborhoods near Sadr City that were repeatedly raided by gunmen in the days following the mosque bombing. The gunmen wore the black clothes of Sadr's militia, residents say. Sadr denies his militiamen were behind the attack, accusing rivals of impersonating his fighters.

After Feb. 22, the Shiite militia fighters took away the imam of Ali's Sunni mosque but brought him back unharmed, said Ali and the cleric, Abu Bilal.

The militia came back two days later to take a Sunni worshiper, a political activist, from the mosque; he turned up later in Baghdad's morgue, tortured and dead, the imam and Ali said.

As in many Baghdad neighborhoods, the men of Ali's district have organized neighborhood watches since the mosque bombing. Doctors, government workers and other professionals, and the Shiite and Sunni neighbors, stand guard together against any return of the militias. Ali's 21-year-old brother, a university student, takes over on the predawn watch from 3 to 6 a.m.

If it turns out that it is too late to prevent a civil war, the International Crisis Group warned late last month, Iraq's minders and neighbors should look ahead to the next worry.

"The international community, including neighboring states, should start planning for the contingency that Iraq will fall apart, so as to contain the inevitable fallout on regional stability and security," the international foreign policy group wrote. "Failure to anticipate such a possibility may lead to further disasters in the future."

But many ordinary Iraqis still speak of cooperation, not of revenge. If full-scale civil war comes, it likely will be driven by the militias and political leaders, not the will of Iraqis.

In Awad, Daash said, Sunni families had pleaded with their Shiite neighbors not to leave. They stood guard with them at night outside their houses. They turned back Daash's family the first time the household packed up and tried to leave.

"If you stay here, we will put you in our eyes," he recalled Sunni friends pleading, using an expression that means they would watch over their Shiite neighbors. "We will protect you."

Unable to stay, Daash slipped his car in behind a passing U.S. military convoy Tuesday, drafting in its wake to the safety of the Shiite neighborhood in north Baghdad.

His was one of 147 Shiite families arriving in Shoula from the Sunni towns outlying Baghdad since Feb. 22, said Dhia Munir, who dished out rice for some of the families at a school converted into a refugee center by Sadr's organization.

"We still feel the same way; we haven't changed," Daash said, speaking warmly of his bonds with the Sunni neighbors. "It's just that we want to be safe."

Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.

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