Global Policy Forum

Sectarian Hatred Pulls Apart Iraq's Mixed Towns


By Sabrina Tavernise

New York Times
November 20, 2005

Abu Noor's town had become so hostile to Shiites that his wife had not left the house in a month, his family could no longer go to the medical clinic and mortar shells had been lobbed at the houses of two of his religious leaders. "I couldn't open the door and stand in my yard," he said.

So when Abu Noor, a Shiite from Tarmiya, a heavily Sunni Arab town north of here, ran into an old friend, a Sunni who faced his own problems in a Shiite district in Baghdad, the two decided to switch houses. They even shared a moving van.

Two and a half years after the American invasion, deep divides that have long split Iraqi society have violently burst into full view. As the hatred between Sunni Arabs and Shiites hardens and the relentless toll of bombings and assassinations grows, families are leaving their mixed towns and cities for safer areas where they will not automatically be targets. In doing so, they are creating increasingly polarized enclaves and redrawing the sectarian map of Iraq, especially in Baghdad and the belt of cities around it.

The evidence is so far mostly anecdotal - the government is not tracking the moves. In a rough count, about 20 cities and towns around Baghdad are segregating, according to accounts by local sheiks, Iraqi nongovernmental organizations and military officials, and the families themselves. Those areas are among the most mixed and the most violent in Iraq - according to the American military, 85 percent of attacks in the country are in four provinces including Baghdad, and two others to its north and west.

The volatile sectarian mix is a holdover from the rule of Saddam Hussein, who gave favors to Sunni Arab landowners in the lush farmland around Baghdad to reinforce loyalties and to protect against Shiites in the south. Shiites came to work the land, and sometimes to own it. Abu Noor moved to Tarmiya in 1987 after the government gave his father land.

"The most violent places are the towns and cities around Baghdad," said Sheik Jalal al-Dien al-Sagheer, a member of Parliament from a religious Shiite party. "It was a circle. It was invented. It did not exist before."

One result has been carnage on a serious scale. In Tarmiya, a close Shiite friend of Abu Noor who helped pack his furniture and drove it to Baghdad received a letter warning him to leave the town or be killed. Nineteen days later he was shot to death in his carpentry shop in front of his father and brother. In all, at least eight of Abu Noor's friends and close relatives, including a brother, have been killed since the beginning of 2004.

The motives for the attacks are often complicated. The complex webs of tribal affiliations and social status that rule everyday life in Iraq do not always line up as simply as Shiite against Sunni. But increasingly, despite the urging of some Shiite religious leaders and Sunni politicians, the attacks have been. A mostly Sunni Arab fringe is carrying out vicious attacks against civilians, often Shiites, while Shiite death squads are openly stalking Sunnis for revenge, and the Shiite-dominated government makes regular arrests in Sunni Arab neighborhoods.

Expressions of prejudice have been making their way onto walls and into leaflets, too. In Tarmiya, writing was scrawled on the walls of the city's main streets: "Get out of here, Badr followers! Traitors! Spies!" it said, using a reference to an armed wing of a religious Shiite party. In Madaen, a mixed city south of Baghdad, a list of names appeared on the walls of several municipal buildings in a warning to leave. Many did.

In Samarra last fall, leaflets appeared warning in clumsy childish script that Samarra is a Sunni city. "We thought at first that they were written by kids and that someone would discipline them," said Sheik Hadi al-Gharawi, an imam who left Samarra, north of Baghdad, a few months ago and now lives in Baghdad. "But later we found they were adults and they were serious." His nephew, Ahmed Samir al-Gharawi, 15, who moved separately with his family in September, was one of two Shiites in his high school class in Samarra. In January, classmates were probing to see whether his family had voted in a national election. "They were joking to find the truth," he said. "I didn't tell them."

Samarra is a holy place in Shiite Islam with two sacred shrines, and Shiites have lived there for hundreds of years. Even so, in a pattern similar to that in Tarmiya, Shiite imams were attacked and businesses became targets, Sheik Gharawi said, and Shiites began to leave.

Emad Fadhel, a Shiite business owner who settled there 38 years ago, estimated that 200 to 260 Shiite families lived in the city before 2003, a figure he said he learned while delivering medicine to poor families. Of those, fewer than 20 remain, said Mr. Fadhel, who moved with his family last August, shortly after a hand grenade was thrown at his father.

The terror hit Ali Nasir Jabr, a 12-year-old with sad eyes, on Aug. 20, when four men with guns entered his family's house in Samarra and began remarking about the family's Shiite identity. Ali, who was feigning sleep on a mat on the floor, said he heard his mother answer that the family had been living in the city for more than 18 years. Then the men shot to death his mother and father, two brothers and a sister. Ali ran to a neighbor's house to call for help, and he then returned alone to wait for rescue workers. "I checked them, I kissed them, one by one," Ali said, sitting in a mosque in central Baghdad, his pants cinched tight with a small belt. "Maybe somebody was still alive."

Ali now lives in Kut in southern Iraq with his uncle. Requirements for autopsies, death certificates and funeral plans forced him to travel to three cities with the five bodies in the summer heat. He helped wrap and carry each one. At the funeral in a mixed area north of here, a dozen friends with guns stood guard, his uncle said.

Some Iraqis, despite years of mass killings of Kurds and Shiites during Mr. Hussein's rule, still argue that sectarian divides did not exist in Iraq before the American invasion. But scratching just beneath the surface turns up hurt in most Shiite homes. Abu Noor recalls asking a high school teacher in Tarmiya the meaning of the word shroogi, a derogatory term for Shiite. Shiites tried to hide their last names. The military had a glass ceiling.

These days, sectarian profiling on the part of the government, which is Shiite, runs in reverse, with some people buying fake national identity cards to hide last names that are obviously Sunni Arab.

For the people who have stayed in their mixed neighborhoods, life has become circumscribed. In Ur, a neighborhood in Baghdad that is 80 percent Shiite, Wasan Foad, 32, a Sunni Arab, grew finely tuned to the timing of suicide bombings. Mr. Foad recalled feeling people's eyes on him and hearing whispering in the market against Sunnis after a big bombing in Hilla this winter. "We were like prisoners in our home," said Mr. Foad, who moved this summer with his wife and their three young sons to the majority Sunni neighborhood of Khudra.

Migration patterns are different for Sunni Arabs. Threats to them have come less often from anonymous letters than from large-scale arrests by the police and the Iraqi Army, largely Shiite, criticized by Sunnis as arbitrary and unfairly focused on Sunni neighborhoods. Sheik Hussein Ali Mansour al-Kharaouli, who is associated with the Iraqi Islamic Party, said Sunni families have been moving from Jibelah, Muhawail, Iskandariya and Haswa, all south of Baghdad, to escape arrests.

The net is wide, and the treatment can be rough. Thiab Ahmed, a Sunni Arab from Madaen, a town of severe sectarian strife south of Baghdad, said his brother, Khalid, died in custody in an Interior Ministry prison on Oct. 20, seven days after Iraqi police commandos arrested him.

Mr. Ahmed, speaking at a Sunni Arab rights organization, Freedom Voice, showed photographs of a man whose body was mutilated and riddled with drill holes, a method often used by Shiite interrogators. "I found him in the morgue," Mr. Ahmed said, his face hard. "He was labeled 'unknown body.' "

Arrest warrants were the reason Abu Noor's Sunni friend wanted to leave Baghdad. Two of his brothers were wanted by the police, Abu Noor said, and the family thought it would be best to leave the area, a largely Shiite neighborhood in northeast Baghdad called Huriya. The family had tribal roots in Abu Noor's town and felt safe there.

The families breathe easier in their new lives. A whole community of Shiites from Samarra, Tarmiya and other largely Sunni cities is living comfortably in modest houses along the narrow shop-lined streets of Huriya.

But there is bitterness. A former officers' club that Abu Noor helped turn into a makeshift mosque for Shiite prayer services in 2003 has been turned into a playground, he said. He struggles to keep hard feelings out of his relationship with his Sunni friend. Every month the man comes to collect the difference in rent: the Baghdad apartment is more expensive, and Abu Noor pays the $140 difference. Last week, Abu Noor applied for a job in the new Iraqi Army. It is the way he can legally take revenge, he said.

Mr. Fadhel, the Shiite businessman from Samarra, now lives not far from Abu Noor. When asked if he would return to his old home, he told an Iraqi fable. In it, a father leaves his son to care for a dancing snake that gives golden coins. The greedy son tries to kill the snake to take all its gold and is fatally bitten, but not before he cuts off its tail. The father returns and finds his dead son and the wounded snake. He tries to make amends in vain.

The snake replied that the man would never forget his son and it would never forget its tail. " 'We can never be friends again,' " Mr. Fadhel said.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Hosham Hussein, Sahar Nageeb, Dexter Filkins and Khalid al-Ansary.

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