No Relief From Fear

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Driven by fear and desperation, Um Abdullah's parents, who are Sunnis, swapped homes with a Shiite family they have known for years. Her parents moved to a section of Baghdad's Saidiya neighborhood controlled by Sunni insurgents. And their friends moved into her family home in the Risala area, controlled by Shiite militias. Each family left behind their furniture, so they could move swiftly and in secret.

It seemed a perfect solution in a capital whose polarization along sectarian lines has deepened this year, despite the influx of 30,000 U.S. military reinforcements. But within days of the arrival of Um Abdullah's parents two months ago, Shiite militias pushed deeper into Saidiya, driving out hundreds of Sunni families. The parents' fear returned.

"If they leave their house in Saidiya, that means they will lose their house in Risala because they made the exchange," said Um Abdullah, who would allow only her nickname to be used because of safety concerns. "My parents feel trapped."

A seven-month-old security offensive was intended to bring enough calm to Baghdad and other areas to resuscitate Iraq socially, politically and physically. Achieving those goals has proved elusive.

While statistics assessing the strife in Iraq are murky, one set -- unofficial Interior Ministry and morgue data provided to The Washington Post -- indicates that the number of Iraqis who died violently in August was less than half the number in January. The statistics echo the assertions of U.S. military officials that such deaths are down, although a Government Accountability Office report on Iraq released Tuesday said it was "not clear if sectarian violence has been reduced."

At the same time, the number of Iraqi corpses found dumped on street corners was higher in August than before the security offensive began and the number of Iraqis leaving their homes has increased significantly in recent months.

For some there is nowhere to go. "Where could we move? The whole Iraq is the same now," said Um Abdullah, a 33-year-old mother of four children who lives in Dora, another dangerous neighborhood. Today, in a capital carved up by checkpoints and sectarian no-go zones, Um Abdullah is more isolated than ever from her parents, speaking to them only by telephone. "I would never go back to Saidiya," she said. "They can come visit me, if they want."

The violence continues to divide Iraq, paralyzing its political system and efforts at national reconciliation. Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region is forging ahead with its own oil law as national legislation to share Iraq's oil revenue -- a key benchmark demanded by the Bush administration -- remains stuck in a political and nationalistic bog.

In areas secured by U.S. troops, American officials are inadvertently breeding dependence as they attempt to promote reconstruction. U.S. officials say they are frustrated that Iraq's Shiite-led government is failing to spend $10 billion of its own oil revenue to provide basic services and rebuild infrastructure, especially in Sunni communities.

Two months ago, Adeeb Fahad al-Azzawi also fled Saidiya. He had seen one too many firefights, one too many bodies dumped on the street where he had lived for 15 years. Tall, with cropped silvery hair and smoke-gray eyes, the 75-year-old Sunni dispatched his daughter to her in-laws in Mosul. He and his wife moved in with relatives in Zafraniya, a nearby area. His 25-year-old son, Abbas, remained to take care of their house.

One month ago, Shiite militiamen stopped a minivan and separated out the Sunni passengers. Abbas was among them. The gunmen, Abbas's father recalled, pounded pistol butts into his body and face, then left him for dead. He survived and fled Saidiya the next day.

"Up to this moment, his mind is not stable," said Azzawi, his voice tinged with anger and sadness.

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