BAGHDAD, Iraq — The sectarian cleansing that drove 68-year-old Abbas al-Saiedi from his home may be as alarming a sign of a country on the brink of civil war as the killings that have swept Iraq in the past week.
Masked gunmen carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and automatic rifles kicked down the gate at his house, fired into the air and told the Shiite he had 48 hours to get his family out of the predominantly Sunni neighborhood in west Baghdad.
Al-Saiedi’s story, a tale of fear and desperation told to The Associated Press on Wednesday, represents a growing phenomenon of religious cleansing in which members of each Muslim sect are driving the others from neighborhoods where they have long lived side by side.
The practice, which has been going on for some time in neighborhoods south of Baghdad, is a barometer of the degree to which the Shiites and Sunnis have moved on the path to civil war. The number of incidents cannot be fully gauged, but is not yet at the level of mass expulsions of the kind that took place in the Balkans during the civil war there in the 1990s.
For their part, Sunnis have long-standing claims of attacks by Shiite-dominated and, some say, government-linked death squads and eviction from homes in the very neighborhoods now being occupied by Shiites displaced from Sunni areas.
Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the powerful Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars, urged both communities to stop reprisal attacks and end evictions.
“The association calls on Shiites who left their houses out of fear ... to return to their homes,” he said Wednesday. “Likewise, we implore our Shiite brothers to stop pushing Sunnis out of their homes, which has been going on for two years” in some Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad.
But al-Kubaisi’s words offered no comfort to the newly evicted al-Saiedi, who — along with a big extended family — was threatened with death Friday night.
“They told me that we have from now till tomorrow to leave, and if they returned tomorrow and found us still here they would slaughter everyone,” al-Saiedi said, the sun glistening off his white beard as he stood in front of a house the family was moving into Wednesday.
That home in the predominantly Shiite north Baghdad neighborhood of Shula was provided by the Sadrist Movement of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and may once have belonged to Sunnis, although it was impossible to find out.
Now it’s in the hands of al-Saiedi, his four sons and their families who had all lived together in the Rissala neighborhood in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib suburb, which gives its name to the notorious prison there.
“We don’t know why this is happening to us,” al-Saiedi said. “There is no point. There is no difference between Sunnis and Shiites. The politicians have created these divisions. Let them take Iraq’s wealth; that’s what they want. But let the people live in peace.”
Other Shiite families ousted from homes in predominantly Sunni areas were less fortunate and found lodgings in partially built homes, mosques and a government youth club.
‘We give you 48 hours to leave’
The Sadrists claimed they knew of 300 Shiite families now in Baghdad looking for places to live after fleeing their old neighborhoods. Many had received a flier that read:
“To you traitors and the spies who live in this area we give you 48 hours to leave or to be killed.” The notes were signed by a previously unknown group that called itself the Brigade for Cleansing the Land of the Two Rivers.
Sunni radicals view Shiites as collaborators with American forces because the majority sect has taken power from the minority Sunnis who held favored status under the ousted Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni.
Some believe Iraq began a final slide toward civil war after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. The attack spawned days of reprisals that damaged or destroyed dozens of mosques and killed about 400 people.
Many of the Shiites who fled their homes in the meantime have ended up in the Shula neighborhood with the al-Saiedi family. Seven other newly arrived families were taking shelter in the weight training and wrestling halls in the Shula youth club.
Food and welcome
Donated sacks of sugar, rice and flour were piled at the door of the club under a banner welcoming the refugees. Crowding inside one hall were four families all from the same tribe, each occupying a corner fitted out with new beds. There was no luggage because the families fled Tarmiya, about 20 miles north of Baghdad, leaving behind all they owned.
For two decades they had lived in that town, where 80 percent of the residents were Sunni. The men worked at a brick factory, and all the families lived in the factory residential compound.
Their troubles began at 6 p.m. Friday when two Opel sedans drove into the factory grounds and three masked gunmen stepped out holding RPGs and automatic rifles.
“They told us that we had from then until 8 a.m. to leave or we would be killed,” said 39-year-old Salim Rashid Hammar, who fled with his wife, four sons and two daughters.
One view: ‘Sectarian treachery has won’
“The factory owner tried to run them off, but they threatened to blow off his head,” Hammar said. The owner took the families to his house for the night, then provided two factory trucks to take them to the main highway Saturday morning. They flagged down two minibuses for the trip to Baghdad.
Hammar’s nephew, 24-year-old Rasoul Shahir Radhi, head of a family of 10 since his father died, voiced the deep frustration of the dozens of refugees, using stark language that ranged across the variety of troubles plaguing the Middle East.
“I’m not some Jew to be treated this way by Arabs. I’m just a Shiite,” Radhi said.
“It looks to me like sectarian treachery among Shiites and Sunnis has won. All I am is an Iraqi person kicked out of Tarmiya, where I had to leave behind all my chickens to be eaten by the dogs. Sectarian treachery has won.”
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