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

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; A01

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."

The Mashhadani family left Hurriyah in 2006 after many Sunni Arabs' homes were marked with an X and an ominous warning: "Blood wanted."

Families flee, once again

Shiite militias took revenge against Sunnis for bombings that targeted Shiite markets, pilgrims and shrines. Sunni families' houses and cars were torched, and they fled in droves.

In 2008, the Iraqi government gave Sunni families a small stipend to encourage their return. The Mashhadanis came back. They thought the worst had passed.

But in the past two months, the Mashhadanis and others who returned have grown afraid, according to interviews with members of several Sunni families and leaders. Many families have left again, they say.

They talk of whispers in the markets about "Sunni dogs" returning to cause problems. They say they see the faces of Shiite militiamen who threatened them and killed relatives and friends. They fear the hateful stares they receive when they're out on errands. And they worry that as the elections near and mass-casualty bombings by Sunni militant groups increase, Shiite militias have started to kill again.

Many top leaders in Moqtada al-Sadr's now-splintered Mahdi Army, a large Shiite militia blamed for much of the sectarian violence, are free again as the U.S. military empties its detention centers.

In the past two months, the Mahdi Army has been reactivated, said Hussein Kamal, intelligence head at the Interior Ministry, which oversees Iraqi police. Authorities have seen an increase in training in southern Shiite provinces and heavy recruiting by the militia in the capital, he said. Sadr had turned his militia into a civic organization, but the group never disarmed. Kamal said Sadr may be changing his tactics again.

"It's a bad thing and a dangerous sign," Kamal said. "They are trying to scare people."

Sunnis not welcome

Jassim now sleeps on a ratty mattress in the back of the factory where he works. Since his brother's slaying, he rarely goes home. His mother is afraid that Jassim, her only living son, will be killed like his brother.

"We feel like strangers now," he said. "The houses are the same, but this place is different. There are very bad people here."

Along the main entrance to Hurriyah, a billboard with children laughing welcomes visitors.

"We must have a better future," it reads.

But through the narrow streets, in the low-slung homes that were cleansed of Sunnis before a few trickled back, the fear is palpable. Sectarian graffiti sprayed on walls in 2006 and 2007 have been scrubbed or scribbled out. But now, new tags are appearing. At one Sunni mosque, security forces quickly removed a spray-painted message.

"Death to Baathists and Wahhabis," it said, referring to Saddam Hussein loyalists and followers of a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam. Days later, another was sprayed across the wall. The message was clear: "Death to Sunnis."

The warnings started appearing after hundreds of candidates were banned from the elections for supposed Baathist ties. The ban, still being fiercely debated, was perceived as an attempt to weed out Sunni and secular candidates. Most Sunni Arabs worry that the Shiite-led government will marginalize them. Sunnis, who boycotted the 2005 vote, are concerned that next month's elections will leave them further disenfranchised.

'It's too dangerous now'

At local cafes, where men play dominoes and cards as they drink sweet tea and bitter coffee, threatening letters were slipped under the door this past month, just as they were during the civil war when Shiite militias controlled the streets here.

No playing dominoes during the holy month of Muharram, when Shiite Muslims mourn the killing of the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, the letters ordered.

Abu Hussein, one cafe owner, took the letters to the Iraqi army. Soldiers looked at them and told him to ban the games for the month, he said.

"The government put pressure on them before, and now they don't," he said, speaking on the condition that only his nickname be used because he feared retribution.

Next door, Jammaa Abd Ali, 60, said he plans to close his cafe after nine years in business in the wake of a drive-by shooting that left bullet holes in the cafe's wall.

"I'll rent it to another person," Ali said. "It's too dangerous now."

This month Yasseen mourned her slain son in the living room where he died. She pulled down a picture of Omar standing in front of a motorcycle. Then she turned it over. It was a cruel reminder of her loss, and a cruel reminder that her family does not belong here.

"I'm afraid," she said. "I hope to leave this street that is filled with destruction and tragedies. I can't believe that any Sunni will stay alive."

Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.

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