Just weeks before elections, specter of sectarian violence resurfaces in Iraq

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

BAGHDAD -- It was only one killing, but it unleashed the demons of a bitter and perhaps unfinished past.

The victim was a Sunni man in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Hurriyah, in northwest Baghdad. The death and the aftermath were reminiscent of the prelude to the sectarian war, which began in late 2005 with a smattering of killings and threats and culminated with 100 bodies a day being dumped in the streets of the capital. With the imminent departure of American forces and fierce competition for power ahead of general elections on March 7, many here say sectarian strife is reigniting.

But this time, there will be no outsider acting as a buffer between the warring sects. U.S. military officials acknowledge that as Iraq regains sovereignty, their influence is waning. A senior U.S. military official who has spent years in Iraq said he fears that as the drawdown begins, American forces are leaving behind many of the same conditions that preceded the sectarian war.

"All we're doing is setting the clock back to 2005," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a stark assessment. "The militias are fully armed, and al-Qaeda in Iraq is trying to move back from the west. These are the conditions now, and we're sitting back looking at PowerPoint slides and whitewashing."

The violence goes both ways: Last month, as Shiites commemorated one of their holiest days, bombings killed scores of pilgrims. And Sunni extremists have been blamed for audacious attacks on targets associated with the Shiite-dominated government, including key ministries. Such violence widens the sectarian rift, and Sunni civilians fear that Shiites may once again turn to militias for protection when Iraqi security forces fail.

The Mashhadani family, which is Sunni, has lived in Hurriyah for 40 years, save two years when family members were forced to flee. They say it's once again time to leave.

On Jan. 23, Omar Mashhadani sat on a flimsy mattress in his living room, waiting to watch a soccer game on television. There was a knock at the door.

When Omar answered, he was shot at least three times.

His brother, Jassim, and his mother, Nadima Taha Yasseen, rushed toward the front door. Omar limped into his brother's arms, the Iraqi flag on his green jersey soaked in blood.

No one came to the family's aid. No one helped load Omar into the minibus that took him to the hospital. No men came to pay condolences after he died last month; they were too afraid to openly mourn his death.

His family has no doubt that Omar was killed because he was Sunni. His name distinguishes him as a Sunni.

"The neighbors look at us with hate," Jassim said. "Little by little, [sectarian violence] is coming back."

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