Image: Refugee camp
Samir Mizban  /  AP file
An Iraqi woman and her child wait to receive aid in a makeshift refugee camp in Baghdad on March 1. Thousands of Sunni and Shiite Muslim families have been forced to leave their homes after an outbreak of sectarian killings sparked by the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shiite holy shrine in Samarra.
updated 3/22/2006 5:38:54 PM ET 2006-03-22T22:38:54

Thousands of Shiite and Sunni families who once lived side by side have been forced from their homes and into a desperate exile, victims of the beginnings of ethnic cleansing a month after the bombing of an important Shiite shrine.

A sign posted in Baghdad’s famous Sunni Muslim Abu Hanifa Mosque tells half the story of the growing numbers of displaced Iraqis in the wake of sectarian killings set in motion by the Feb. 22 attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra.

“We urge those wishing to help displaced families to give their offerings to the mosque Donations Committee,” the sign said. Sunnis have come by the hundreds, and dozens more arrive daily.

The second half of the increasingly violent and bitter tale can be found among displaced Shiites in the capital, who have fled primarily to be with other Shiites in the Sadr City slum. Followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were waiting with a huge network already in place to help the poor.

A nationwide problem
Even before the shrine bombing, the practice of ethnic displacement had been going on for some time in neighborhoods south of Baghdad. But in the aftermath of the Samarra attack, it has become a nationwide problem in places where the two sects had lived as neighbors.

Saeed Haqqi, head of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, said Shiites have fled mainly to Sadr City and to the southern cities of Najaf, Karbala and Basra. Sunnis were headed mostly to Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib suburb and to Tarmiyah, where Shiites were recently run out of the town 30 miles north of the capital.

Minister of Migration Suhaila Abed Jaafar said her department has helped 3,705 displaced families nationwide since Feb. 22.

U.S. military engineers working to upgrade the Iraqi electricity grid estimate each Iraqi family at six people. The math, then, shows the known number of displaced at more than 22,000 in the past month alone.

And that figure does not count what must be hundreds, if not thousands, more families who have moved in with relatives, taken shelter in community centers and mosques or occupied partially built homes and those abandoned by displaced members of the other Muslim sect.

The killings in Iraq since the April 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein have nearly all been, at root, driven by sectarian rage. Saddam’s Sunni minority ran the country for decades, oppressing the Shiite majority, which has since assumed a dominant political place.

The Sunnis, angered by their sudden loss of status, became a ripe recruiting ground for the insurgency that, along with Sunni terrorists in the al-Qaida in Iraq organization, have killed thousands over the past three years.

Shiites have begun hitting back, especially members of shadowy death squads that are said to operate out of the Interior Ministry, which is run by a member of the sect.

Tortured bodies found
In the past month a dozen or more bullet-riddled bodies, often showing signs of torture, have been found scattered throughout Baghdad and other cities each day. Nearly 90 bodies were found on one day alone this month — reason enough for an Iraqi to flee his home if he is among the minority in his neighborhood.

Khalil Mohammed Khalil, a 39-year-old Sunni who owned an electrical appliances shop in Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhood of Shaab, fled to his parents’ home with his wife and four children.

After the shrine attack Khalil had been kidnapped along with two other Sunni men, who were killed. He survived when the brothers of his wife, a Shiite, negotiated his freedom.

“After my release I returned and found that my shop and house were burned so I took my family and rushed to my parents’ house,” Khalil said during an interview at Abu Hanifa Mosque, one of Sunni Islam’s holiest places of worship in Iraq.

Khalil al-Azami, head of the Azamiya neighborhood council in north Baghdad, said he was working with dozens of Sunni families who have fled from Shiite neighborhoods such as Shaab and Husseiniyah.

Five miles east in Sadr City, 39-year-old Mtashar Fakher, his wife and four children are jammed into one small room at al-Wafa School after the Shiite family was run out of the predominantly Sunni neighborhood around the notorious Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. Al-Sadr followers provided the shelter.

“I used to leave my house scared every morning and return home scared every night. Then they distributed leaflets telling Shiites to get out,” said Fakher, dressed in a track suit, his children listening in a big common room at the school. “I left on my own. No one threatened me, but five Shiites who live in the same street were killed.”

Home no longer a safe place
The U.S.-led invasion promoted a vision of democracy and peace for Iraqis after decades of oppression and tyranny, but for 31-year-old Abu Hussein Abbas, a Shiite who fled Abu Ghraib, that dream no longer includes returning home.

He spoke to a reporter from a small room in a Sadr City school where he lives with his wife, two children, his mother, his brother and his wife and three children. Also crammed in with them was the wife of a slain brother and her three children.

The dead brother was killed by Sunni extremists.

Abbas said the family fled Abu Ghraib when they received a leaflet reading: “You Shiites are infidels and we have every right to kill you.”

“Now,” he says, “it is only a dream to go home. The reality is I would be killed the day I went back.”

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