Thousands of Iraqis Flee to Avoid Spread Of Violence

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 28 -- Sectarian violence has displaced more than 25,000 Iraqis since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine, a U.N.-affiliated agency said Tuesday, and shelters and tent cities are springing up across central and southern Iraq to house homeless Sunni and Shiite families.

The flight is continuing, according to the International Organization for Migration, which works closely with the United Nations and other groups. The result has been a population exchange as Sunni and Shiite families flee mixed communities for the safety of areas where their own sects predominate.

"I definitely wouldn't say the displacement has peaked," said Dana Graber, an official of the migration agency in Amman, Jordan. "It's continuous."

The agency's figures were compiled from information provided by partner organizations working with displaced Iraqis. The government Ministry of Displacement and Migration puts the count higher, at more than 32,000.

"I was shocked to be threatened by people from the same place I had lived in for so many years," said Hussein Alwan, 53, a cafe owner, who said he was driven out of Latifiyah, a mixed Shiite-Sunni city in the area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death.

Alwan, a Shiite, traveled with his wife, four daughters and three sons this month to the almost entirely Shiite city of Najaf, where local authorities have converted a vacant hotel into a shelter for the newcomers and say they are gathering tents for an outlying camp. Iraqi newspapers on Tuesday reported tents pitched in a field outside another southern city, Nasiriyah, for Shiite families arriving there in flight from sectarian violence.

Alwan told a story that already has grown familiar since the near-destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, 65 miles north of Baghdad, touched off five weeks of Shiite-Sunni bloodletting. "They told me that I should leave within 24 hours or we will all get killed," Alwan said in an interview in Najaf. "So we left everything there and took only the bare things we need to live."

The mosque bombing greatly escalated steadily climbing sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq, where the Shiite majority and Sunni Arab and ethnic Kurdish minorities have been competing for a share of power and turf since the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein three years ago.

During Hussein's rule, forced transfers of ethnic group members left close to 1 million Iraqis internally displaced, and the country has experienced large flows of displaced people since the U.S.-led invasion, said Graber, the agency official. The November 2004 U.S. offensive in Fallujah, for example, sent more than 40,000 residents fleeing the city, she said.

Since the Samarra bombing, threats or killings have spurred many families to flee their homes with nothing, not even their ration cards, Graber said. "And there's no certainty as to when it will be safe again to return, when they can return without their sons getting killed," she said.

Both Shiite and Sunni families make up the displaced, the immigration agency's figures show.

Many Sunni families are leaving Shiite or mixed communities to take refuge in heavily Sunni western Iraq, and many Shiite families are heading south to the country's Shiite heartland. In some places, the last remaining minorities have left otherwise homogenous places.

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