'Neighbors Are Killing Neighbors'
Across Baghdad, Violence Leaves Residents Fleeing or Imprisoned at Home

By Joshua Partlow and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; A16

BAGHDAD -- When her home became unlivable, when her neighbors were gunned down in the streets, a mother of seven said goodbye to her teenage sons and set out on foot into the lethal Baghdad night.

Ignoring the citywide curfew, the woman known as Um Mustafa grabbed her two youngest children and walked five miles down the back roads of moonlit urban slums to the refugee camp that has become their new home.

In a patch of crusted dirt and scratchy grass, they are now among 30 families living under the camp's green tents, surviving on rations of rice and tomatoes, and watching as violence engulfs much of their city.

"I left my boys in al-Jihad because they refused to leave their house. They said, 'We will never leave our home. We will fight for it,' " recalled Um Mustafa, too afraid to give her full name, as she stood outside her tent. "I ran away when the shooting started. We left with the clothes that were on our bodies."

"Neighbors are killing neighbors," she said. "We cannot trust anyone."

After more than a week of some of the most vicious sectarian violence of the war, Baghdad is a skeleton of a city: Many of its shops are shuttered, its streets drained of people.

The violence erupted July 9 when Shiite Muslim militiamen rampaged through the al-Jihad neighborhood and killed dozens of Sunni Arabs. By Friday, the sixth day, the death toll in Baghdad stood at 628 people, according to Brig. Gen. Mahmoud Nima of the Interior Ministry, citing a figure that far exceeded the numbers previously suggested by news reports.

Across large swaths of territory south and west of the Tigris River -- Baghdad neighborhoods such as al-Jihad, Amiriyah, Ghazaliyah and Dora -- residents who have not fled spent days virtually imprisoned by the military checkpoints and street fighting between residents and marauding militiamen.

To the north, in the Shiite shantytown of Sadr City, at least three bombings have crumbled buildings and burned out shops and cars.

In the relatively safer neighborhoods of central Baghdad -- Karrada and Karadat Maryam -- traffic moved down commercial streets and sidewalk vendors hawked bags of potato chips and piles of watermelons. But there were indications that violence has also affected these neighborhoods.

In his Karrada clothing store, Sarmed Fadhil was hanging rows of suits, but they were pieces cut from last winter's wool.

The summer shipment of 500 European suits and 2,000 dress shirts waited on hold indefinitely outside Iraq, already paid for but with no chance of being sold.

"The market is totally frozen," Fadhil, sweat beading on his brow, said inside a dark, deserted showroom. "Most of our customers have already left the country."

Even in the safer areas of Baghdad, no one is immune from sporadic attacks: Two suicide bombers last week killed 16 people 200 yards outside civilian entrances to the fortified Green Zone where the U.S. government works.

For wealthier Iraqis, perhaps the most welcome patch of ground is inside Baghdad International Airport, the last stop before leaving the country. Airlines added extra flights last week to Amman, Jordan, to accommodate the exodus.

Huzaa Khadam Hamdan, 38, and her sister, who work at the National Organization of Iraqi Women, decided to flee when the organization's director was shot last month and the office was burned. The sisters said they received threats from men who they believed were members of a Shiite militia.

"They call us whores," she said. "Saying we are leading women into sin."

They took refuge last week at the home of a parliament member, borrowed money for plane tickets, and waited in the airport with two suitcases of clothes and rations of rice before boarding a plane to Jordan. For the first time in their lives, the Sunni women wore head scarves on the trip to the airport to hide their identities.

"Believe me, I'm here at the airport and I'm still scared," Hamdan said. "We will never come back. If we come back, we will be killed."

Although Sunni Arab insurgents have instigated months of violence, Shiite militias such as the powerful Mahdi Army have been blamed in the past week for orchestrating dozens of brutal attacks.

Officials in the Mahdi Army, controlled by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have repeatedly denied taking part in the killings in Baghdad over the past week, suggesting instead what they called rogue elements of the militia operating without official orders.

East of the airport, the Dora district lived up to its reputation as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. At least 245 people died there last week, police said. U.S. troops and Iraqi police descended on Dora on Thursday afternoon, clashing with insurgents outside the al-Rumi mosque.

From inside his house, a Shiite resident peered through his window at the ragtag collection of warriors menacing the street: shirtless men firing machine guns, gunmen in black tracksuits toting rocket-propelled grenade launchers. His children cried at the rattle of gunfire, unable to fall asleep in their beds. Iraqi police formed a cordon around his house, trapping his family inside and other relatives, trying to get home, outside of it.

"We are hiding now in the house," said the Shiite resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons. "It's hard for us to go shopping. There is one grocer whose only new vegetables arrived three days ago, and people are buying whatever is left."

With no electricity in the neighborhood for five days and severe cooking gas shortages, some residents now heat their food over wood fires. In the violence over the past week, material possessions lost some significance: People sold off their furniture to buy AK-47 assault rifles and ammunition, said one resident, Amar al-Jubouri.

Jubouri, a 40-year-old Sunni, said that police are collaborating with the militias and that there is a $1,200 bounty on the head of any Sunni with his surname. When he passed a police checkpoint this week, he said, he overheard someone say: "Wash away your sins and be forgiven with the blood of a Sunni."

The conflict has turned some neighbors into killers. Rashid al-Jubouri, a resident of Dora, said he joined the fighting this week to defend himself and helped capture two militiamen after a raid in which seven young men from the neighborhood were executed.

"They were hanged on the electricity poles, there were traces of drilling and torture on their bodies, and they were burnt with acid," he said. "So when we captured those two and interrogated them, we also executed them and hanged them on the same electricity poles."

Such vigilante spirit has taken hold throughout nearby Sunni neighborhoods such as Amiriyah and Ghazaliyah. Religious leaders canvassed homes last week to recruit people to join neighborhood defense groups, while mosques broadcast warnings whenever gunmen approached.

Amar al-Zobaie, a resident of Ghazaliyah, said militiamen broadcast their own sentiments through megaphones, walking past his home shouting: "We are all your soldiers, Sadr!"

On Thursday night, gunmen scattered fliers in the street addressed to "the scum of Ghazaliyah," giving Sunnis 72 hours to leave the neighborhood.

"Otherwise death will be your destiny and the destiny of all those who underestimate this, and bullets from the rifles of chivalrous men will land in the heads and chests of those who support evil and shook hands with the devil," the flier read.

The next day, Sunni groups distributed their own warnings. One flier, which hung on the wall of al-Abbas mosque in Amiriyah, told children not to buy candy or toys from Shiites and instructed their parents to stockpile weapons, leave mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods or abandon Baghdad altogether.

At the top of the page, above the list of instructions, the flier read: "What are we going to do when the civil war starts?"

Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company