Iraqis House-Swapping to Escape Violence

By ANTONIO CASTANEDA
The Associated Press
Friday, July 28, 2006; 6:48 AM

NASSER WA SALAAM, Iraq -- Fearing sectarian death squads, Iraqis are trading homes with trusted friends from the other sect, surrounding themselves with those who share their faith but creating segregated neighborhoods increasingly wary of one other.

Iraqi officers say about 1,500 families have fled this religiously mixed city 25 miles west of Baghdad. Many others have moved to neighborhoods where their sect predominates _ either deserting their former homes or exchanging them with people from the other brand of Islam.

"Friends from different sects say, 'Let's trade houses, then we'll move back when things settle down,'" said Brig. Gen. Abdullah Abdul Kareem Abdul Sattar, commander of Iraqi forces in this city of about 80,000.

So far the city has escaped rampant sectarian attacks. Many families have moved to avoid the military checkpoints that delay travel to jobs in Baghdad.

But the trucks packed with household goods that shuttle between neighborhoods underscore the sectarian fault line. Iraqi soldiers have tried to persuade residents to stay, but they acknowledge that influential tribal and religious leaders have encouraged many to leave.

"All day long you'll see trucks moving back and forth to where they think it's safer, but they're taking those grudges with them," Abdullah said. "The best we can do is stop them at checkpoints, and assure them of their safety and security."

The problem is not isolated to Nasser Wa Salaam.

In the nearby Abu Ghraib district, U.S. Marines this spring poked through abandoned homes and heard stories about all the Shiites who had fled the mostly Sunni neighborhood on the western edge of Baghdad.

In Fallujah, a tent city was erected in a parking lot to shelter hundreds of mostly Sunni Arab families who fled Shiite death squads and militias in Baghdad.

Nationwide, 26,858 families _ or about 160,000 people _ have been displaced by sectarian violence since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, according to Migration Minister Abdul-Samad Rahman.

Some U.S. and Iraqi commanders blame rumor-mongering for exaggerating the risk facing Iraqis in areas where they are in the minority. For example, residents say they've seen or heard of fliers warning that they'll be killed if they don't leave.

But American soldiers say they've never seen one.


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