Fearful, Iraq's Sunnis Leave Mixed Neighborhoods

Published January 1, 2012 5:00PM (EST)

BAGHDAD (AP) — The question was disturbing: Why do you live here?

Ahmed al-Azami, a Sunni Muslim, has owned a house in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Shaab since 1999. But when Shiite residents recently began questioning why he, a Sunni, was living among them, he decided it was time to leave.

His story and similar tales by other Sunnis suggest Iraqis are again segregating themselves along sectarian lines, prompted by a political crisis pulling at the explosive Sunni-Shiite divide just weeks after the American withdrawal left Iraq to chart its own future.

The numbers so far are small and not easy to track with precision, but anecdotal accounts and a rise in business at real estate agencies in Sunni neighborhoods reveal a Sunni community contemplating the worse-case scenario and acting before it's too late.

Baghdad and the rest of Iraq are already highly segregated places. Running from bombs, death squads and their own neighbors at the height of violence in 2006 and 2007, Sunnis and Shiites fled neighborhoods that were once mixed.

That violence and the resulting migrations slowed in 2008, but tensions are again swirling as a power struggle worsens between Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Sunni politicians who have been largely sidelined since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. And many fear increased violence could result.

"People started to question my origins. Why don't you live in Azamiyah?" said al-Azami, referring to the Sunni-dominated enclave in northern Baghdad where he has a shop. He felt so nervous and unwelcome that he began looking for a house in Azamiyah a few weeks ago. Once he moves, he'll either rent out or sell his Shaab house.

"I will always be a stranger to them," he said, referring to his Shiite neighbors.

In a sign that he is not alone, rental prices in Azamiyah have risen by about $200 a month, said real estate agent Abu Abdullah al-Obeidi. Other Sunni neighborhoods of the capital like Adel and Khadra have also seen rent increases, he said.

"The people who are coming to Azamiyah to rent or buy are afraid that they will be killed during any possible sectarian war if they stay in the mixed areas," al-Obeidi said.

Iraq's worst political crisis in years blew up just as the last American troops were rolling across the border into Kuwait on Dec. 18. Al-Maliki's government issued an arrest warrant for the country's highest-ranking Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, on charges he ran a hit squad that assassinated government officials five years ago.

Al-Hashemi is staying in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region beyond the reach of Iraqi law enforcement, and the government has televised purported confessions in which his bodyguards say he paid them to carry out the killings.

Al-Maliki is also trying to get rid of Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq after he likened the prime minister to Saddam, a comparison meant to suggest he had autocratic leanings.

Al-Maliki has threatened to form a government without a key Sunni-backed party, Iraqiya, which has been boycotting parliament because its members say al-Maliki is not sharing power.

Even before the U.S. military withdrawal, sectarian tensions were rising after the arrests of hundreds of former members of Saddam's Sunni-controlled Baath Party. For Sunnis, a purge of Baathists is seen as a shot against all Sunnis.

When Iraq's violence was at its worst, hundreds of thousands of people fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria. Most of them were Sunnis, and more than a million remain there.

But with a crisis in Syria and tightening visa requirements for Iraqis in Syria and Jordan, Sunnis now seem to be relocating around Iraq. Some, like al-Azami, are moving from Shiite to Sunni neighborhoods, others are going from Baghdad to Sunni-dominated cities such as Fallujah or Mosul or the relatively safer Kurdish region.

This means Iraq's sectarian map will have even more sharply drawn boundary lines. For some of those contemplating moves — most of them minority Sunnis — it is a familiar feeling.

Mohammed Abdullah moved his family to Syria in 2006 when violence was at its worst. Two years later he, his wife and two children returned, hoping to find a better Iraq. For a while it seemed better.

One recent confrontation, though, changed all that.

Abdullah, who used to drive passengers in an SUV from Baghdad to the northern city of Kirkuk, was harassed by one of his Shiite passengers. Sunni members of the Diyala provincial council had just voted to form an autonomous region, essentially trying to limit the Shiite-dominated government's control on them. Shiite protesters blocked the streets for hours to demonstrate against the vote.

Abdullah said the passenger, a soldier in the Iraqi army, knew he was Sunni after seeing him pray during a rest stop in the Sunni fashion, with his hands clasped in front of him. When Abdullah took a detour to get around the blocked roads, the soldier started in on him.

"The army officer thought I was taking a road controlled by al-Qaida to let insurgents kidnap the passengers," he said. "He told me that I put the lives of the passengers at risk, and he threatened me."

Hala Abdul-Rahman's 17-year-old son was kidnapped in 2004 by Shiite militiamen while he was walking through the Sunni neighborhood of Dora in southern Baghdad. His father found the boy's body in a field days later.

Her family moved to Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad. The Kurdish-Arab city had its own problems since the invasion but was generally much safer than Baghdad. In 2009, thinking the bad memories were gone forever, they moved back to Dora. But with the recent tension and al-Hashemi's arrest warrant, they took no chances. Earlier this week they moved to Chamchamal, a city in the Kurdish north.

"We lost the dearest thing parents can lose and that is our eldest son," she said. "We are not ready to sacrifice another son because of the politicians' ambitions."


Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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