Questionnaires Stir Unease in a Baghdad Enclave

Residents Wary Of Bid to Undo Cleansing by Sect

Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 26, 2008; Page A18

BAGHDAD The document appeared harmless enough -- a computer-generated form, on white paper, seeking personal information. The two Iraqi soldiers who handed it to Abu Samir at his house were polite and respectful. But when the Christian shopkeeper took a closer look, he froze.

The document asked for a copy of the deed to his house, his children's names and, most disturbing, the name of his tribe, which identifies his religion and ethnicity. In Iraq, such a request has often been the first step toward death.

"When I saw it, it was like someone was trying to push us back to the previous era," said Abu Samir, 48, who lives in Zayouna, an ethnically mixed, upper-middle-class enclave in eastern Baghdad. "We are afraid that sectarianism will come back."

The forms were part of an effort to enhance the rule of law and encourage reconciliation by identifying residents living in houses that had been emptied by sectarian cleansing and prodding them to return to their own neighborhoods.

In 2006, many people fleeing sectarian tensions in other areas entered Zayouna and occupied vacant houses there. Now, authorities are determined to bring displaced people back. But with a newly assertive Shiite-led government taking over security and U.S. troops increasingly playing a support role, the forms unleashed fears they were a prelude to more ethnic cleansing.

"The security situation is still fragile," said Numan al-Bayati, 35, a Sunni government employee, who also received the form. "We don't know if the soldiers are working for the country or for a political party. Trust needs to be built step by step."

Saddam Hussein built this enclave of palatial, sand-colored houses and manicured lawns for his military officers. Later, it grew to include a highly educated class of civil servants, professors and businessmen. Sunnis, Shiites and Christians lived side by side; many intermarried.

But after the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, sectarian rifts split the community. Sunnis and Shiites alike tried their best to remain invisible or fled their homes. American troops, once hated here as occupiers, were trusted more by many residents than the mostly Shiite Iraqi security forces.

Unlike in other parts of Baghdad, neighbors did not fight each other. Armed gangs of Sunnis and Shiites from outside the area perpetrated the killings and kidnappings. When U.S. and Iraqi forces launched offensives against those armed groups last year, Zayouna was among the first enclaves to see improvements in security. Today, blast walls and concrete barriers block most roads into the neighborhood, and Iraqi soldiers and policemen man checkpoints and conduct patrols.

Once-shuttered stores now stay open late, and fashionably dressed women walk alone. Residents who for years remained locked inside their homes wash cars in driveways, water lawns and socialize with neighbors without care for sect or religion.

"We don't have any problems with each other," said Ammar Muhammed, 35, a Sunni pharmacist. "It is the strangers who brought the sectarian problems."

Two weeks ago, two Iraqi soldiers knocked on the door of Abu Rabab, a 61-year-old retired government employee and a Sunni, and handed him the white form. It bore no official emblem or signature from a government ministry. The soldiers told him they needed his personal information for statistical purposes.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company