For Iraq's Sunnis, Conflict Closes In

An empty Sunni house, taken over by the Mahdi Army, stands as a warning. The writings read
An empty Sunni house, taken over by the Mahdi Army, stands as a warning. The writings read "Not for sale. Wanted" and "This is vengeance for the other day." (Photos By Washington Post Staff)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 11, 2006

BAGHDAD, Dec. 10 -- A few blocks from Ali Farouk's three-story home, an empty house provides a glimpse of what he fears will be the future. Once owned by a Sunni Muslim, the paint is peeling, the windows are blown out. Two scarlet X's mark the pale blue front door.

To the door's right are the words: "Not for Sale. Wanted."

According to neighbors, "Wanted" refers to the former owner, who fled after crossing paths with the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The gunmen accused the owner of killing four of their own at a checkpoint. Then they took over his house.

To the door's left, the words: "This is vengeance for the other day."

Farouk, a Sunni Muslim, fears his home might be targeted next. In the past two months, Shiite militiamen have tightened their grip on his central Baghdad neighborhood of Tobji, purging dozens of Sunni families, by fear and by threats. His world has become even more precarious since a barrage of car bombs, mortar shells and missiles killed more than 200 on Nov. 23 in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum that is home to many of Sadr's loyalists.

So Farouk began preparing to do what neither his father nor his grandfather could have imagined in their Iraq: flee Tobji, an enclave where Shiites and Sunnis have coexisted for more than half a century. Farouk plans to join the more than 400,000 Iraqis who have fled their homes, an exodus that is reshaping the face of Baghdad into neighborhoods polarized along sectarian lines.

On Saturday, Farouk's mission grew more urgent. In the latest spasm of revenge attacks, gangs of Shiite gunmen stormed Hurriyah, a mixed neighborhood adjacent to Tobji, torching houses, killing at least two Sunni Arabs and driving out dozens of Sunni families. On Sunday, in interviews across Tobji, Sunni Arabs worried that their fate could soon mirror their brethren's.

"It is coming like a wave," said Khudir Mahmoud, 32, after his midday prayers. "If the government doesn't intervene, the wave will reach here. We are only one street away."

The unraveling of Tobji and Hurriyah is the latest setback for the nation's Sunni minority, which is still seeking a political foothold in Iraq in the fourth year of war. Sunnis were once part of the country's privileged class, with government jobs, but their days and nights are now filled with fear and dread unlike anything they felt since the toppling of President Saddam Hussein.

"We are stuck in a big hole waiting for Lucifer to take our souls," said Farouk, 46, a father of seven. "At any moment we can die."

Worry Despite Precautions

Rabiaa Street, a dusty, congested thoroughfare, flows through central Baghdad west of the Tigris River. Along one stretch, near a patch of machinery shops, Hurriyah and Tobji face each other across the street. In Arabic, Hurriyah means freedom. Tobji's official name is Salaam. It means peace.

On one side, the road streams into Hurriyah's core, past a Sunni mosque that was destroyed, past a satellite office of Sadr, where clusters of young men lingered, past signs that read "Long Live Shia."

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