Karim Kadim  /  AP
Car bombs and rocket attacks blamed on sectarian violence destroyed this Baghdad neighborhood in mid-August.
updated 9/1/2006 5:38:35 PM ET 2006-09-01T21:38:35

Four years ago this was a city where people mixed freely — where, in most parts of town, no one cared if a neighborhood was majority Sunni or Shiite. Loyalty to Saddam Hussein was more important than religious identity.

But now a battle for Baghdad is well under way between the two major Muslim sects. Death squads are slaughtering people daily, and an estimated 160,000 Iraqis have fled their homes — mostly here in the capital.

Out of that violence, a new but not better city is emerging. Many Iraqis fear that the result will be a Sunni west and a Shiite east, with the broad Tigris River snaking through the middle as the sectarian boundary.

The process ultimately could leave a legacy of bitterness and poison Iraqi society for generations. Each sect has legitimate claims to territory on both sides of the river that they won’t emotionally abandon. And no national Iraqi government can truly function if sectarian “no go” zones are scattered all over the capital.

Baghdad, Iraq’s largest city with a population of more than 6 million, is still a long way from that stark sectarian divide. There are many religiously mixed neighborhoods, and Shiite and Sunni enclaves remain on both sides of the river.

The mixed character of some neighborhoods, such as Jihad and Amariyah, is partly due to Saddam Hussein’s policy of rewarding government officials and Baath Party figures.

Spacious villas or plots of land in newly developed neighborhoods went to Iraqis based not on religion but on loyalty to the regime. Rich Shiite businessmen were as welcome as anyone, even in neighborhoods populated by officers from Saddam’s Sunni-dominated military.

But that peaceful coexistence began to change after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam.

Sunnis, suddenly powerless, saw the Shiite politicians and clerics who cooperated with the Americans as their enemy and legitimate targets in the sectarian struggle.

February turning point
The rifts widened dramatically this year. After a Feb. 22 blast destroyed an important Shiite shrine in Samarra, Shiite hard-liners stopped listening to their clerics’ appeals for restraint.

Although reliable census data is unavailable, the city has developed historically with Sunnis in greater numbers west of the Tigris and Shiites, Kurds and Christians more numerous in the east. That general pattern has been sharpened and made more stark as tensions have risen and people have fled to neighborhoods where others of their “kind” live.

As the city reshapes itself, flashpoints are emerging. The core fight today is a struggle for control of the corridors into the city from the north and south.

In the north, Shiites control an arc of neighborhoods — Sadr City, Kazimiyah and Shula. In the south, Sunni militants are trying to consolidate power in another arc, comprised of Sadiyah and Dora.

The anchor of Shiite power is Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad. It’s an almost exclusively Shiite community of 2.5 million people that is the stronghold of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, head of an important militia called the Mahdi army.

For the time being, Sadr City is a Shiite militia safe haven. Al-Sadr is a key supporter of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the prime minister angrily criticized the Americans for using excessive force in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid on Sadr City in early August.

From Sadr City, Mahdi militiamen fan out across eastern Baghdad and use major traffic arteries such as Palestine Street to reach religiously mixed areas to the south and east. That gives them a degree of control along the eastern and northern routes into the city — and they’re trying to strengthen that control.

Leon Franca Aziz, 61, a Christian, used to live in one of those mixed eastern neighborhoods until he found a warning spray-painted on the wall around his house: “Crusaders must leave or their heads will be our sons’ soccer balls.” He packed up and moved to Syria last April.

Sparsely populated areas just outside Sadr City also are good locations for firing mortars and rockets at the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, to the southwest along the west bank of the Tigris.

To the west of Sadr City lies a second major Shiite stronghold — Kazimiyah — a neighborhood that grew up around the shrine of an 8th century Shiite saint. Next over to the west lies Shula, a haven for Shiites driven from their homes elsewhere.

But wedged between Sadr City and Kazimiyah is a cluster of Sunni districts, chief among them Azamiyah, where Saddam hid when Baghdad fell to U.S. forces in April 2003. Azamiyah thus prevents Shiite extremists from moving freely between Sadr City and the two other Shiite strongholds to the west.

That makes Azamiyah a target for Shiite militiamen. Mindful of that, Sunnis in Azamiyah have formed armed neighborhood militias to guard against outsiders — even those who in theory are there to protect them.

When Iraqi government police entered the area last April to set up checkpoints, many Azamiyah residents were convinced that Shiite death squads would not be far behind. The Sunni groups battled government forces for two days.

Meanwhile, across the city on Baghdad’s southern rim, lies another key flashpoint — where Sunnis are pressing to consolidate power over the mixed, but mostly Sunni, neighborhoods of Dora and Sadiyah.

The arc they form along a bend in the Tigris River is another key point of control. It’s a route that Shiite pilgrims travel between Baghdad and a religious shrine to the south. But it also connects Baghdad to a belt of Sunni villages where al-Qaida and other Sunni religious extremists operate — an area known as the “Triangle of Death” for its frequent attacks.

Dora's decline
In this area, Dora is the prize. A once-fashionable neighborhood of spacious villas and leafy streets, it was home, before Saddam’s fall, to Sunnis, Shiites and Christians who lived together peacefully. Now, Sunni extremists have been violently pressuring Shiites and Christians to leave.

Shiite physician Ahmed Mulktar, his wife and their four children left their two-story house in Dora in July for a cramped apartment in eastern Baghdad after he was kidnapped and told there was “no room for Shiites” in Dora.

“I didn’t have any other choice but to leave my house and move to another, safer area,” Mulktar said.

Sunni control of Dora also threatens Karradah, a mostly Shiite district across the Tigris that is controlled by the country’s biggest Shiite party. In late July, about 30 people were killed in Karradah in a coordinated attack of car bombs and a rocket barrage fired across the river from Dora.

Since then, U.S. officials have claimed some success in reducing the city’s sectarian violence with a major influx of troops. But restoring public confidence will take much longer, and in the meantime the city continues to segregate along religious lines.

Abu Saleh, a retired Agriculture Ministry official, moved from Shula, in the Shiite area, to Sadiyah in July after he and his wife were verbally harassed as “defiled Sunnis.”

“Moving to another place was a must,” he said. “But it was hard to leave everything behind.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments