Sectarian violence has displaced more than 25,000 Iraqis since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine, a U.N.-affiliated agency said Tuesday, and shelters and tent cities are springing up across central and southern Iraq to house homeless Sunni and Shiite families.
The flight is continuing, according to the International Organization for Migration, which works closely with the United Nations and other groups. The result has been a population exchange as Sunni and Shiite families flee mixed communities for the safety of areas where their own sects predominate.
"I definitely wouldn't say the displacement has peaked," said Dana Graber, an official of the migration agency in Amman, Jordan. "It's continuous."
The agency's figures were compiled from information provided by partner organizations working with displaced Iraqis. The government Ministry of Displacement and Migration puts the count higher, at more than 32,000.
"I was shocked to be threatened by people from the same place I had lived in for so many years," said Hussein Alwan, 53, a cafe owner, who said he was driven out of Latifiyah, a mixed Shiite-Sunni city in the area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death.
Alwan, a Shiite, traveled with his wife, four daughters and three sons this month to the almost entirely Shiite city of Najaf, where local authorities have converted a vacant hotel into a shelter for the newcomers and say they are gathering tents for an outlying camp. Iraqi newspapers on Tuesday reported tents pitched in a field outside another southern city, Nasiriyah, for Shiite families arriving there in flight from sectarian violence.
‘Leave within 24 hours’
Alwan told a story that already has grown familiar since the near-destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, 65 miles north of Baghdad, touched off five weeks of Shiite-Sunni bloodletting. "They told me that I should leave within 24 hours or we will all get killed," Alwan said in an interview in Najaf. "So we left everything there and took only the bare things we need to live."
The mosque bombing greatly escalated steadily climbing sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq, where the Shiite majority and Sunni Arab and ethnic Kurdish minorities have been competing for a share of power and turf since the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein three years ago.
During Hussein's rule, forced transfers of ethnic group members left close to 1 million Iraqis internally displaced, and the country has experienced large flows of displaced people since the U.S.-led invasion, said Graber, the agency official. The November 2004 U.S. offensive in Fallujah, for example, sent more than 40,000 residents fleeing the city, she said.
Since the Samarra bombing, threats or killings have spurred many families to flee their homes with nothing, not even their ration cards, Graber said. "And there's no certainty as to when it will be safe again to return, when they can return without their sons getting killed," she said.
Both Shiite and Sunni families make up the displaced, the immigration agency's figures show.
Many Sunni families are leaving Shiite or mixed communities to take refuge in heavily Sunni western Iraq, and many Shiite families are heading south to the country's Shiite heartland. In some places, the last remaining minorities have left otherwise homogenous places.
Movement within Baghdad
Within Baghdad, many families are moving between Sunni, Shiite and mixed neighborhoods.
Baghdad has taken in at least 220 Shiite families from Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold west of the capital, according to reports gathered by the agency. These families "represent a fairly high percentage of the total Shia community in Anbar," the agency noted.
In Fallujah, an overwhelmingly Sunni Arab city 35 miles west of Baghdad, only 37 Shiite families remain, persuaded by pleas from their Sunni neighbors to stay despite threats from foreign fighters, the agency said.
Another 15 or so miles to the west, in Habbaniyah, dozens of Sunni families have gathered to seek shelter.
Dhafir Sadoun, a 41-year-old shop owner who uprooted his household in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood and came to Habbaniyah, said he had felt no threat from the militias of Iraq's governing Shiite religious parties. But after months of kidnappings and killings of Sunni men blamed on the Shiite-dominated government security forces, it had become impossible to remain, he said.
"We did not fear the Mahdi Army," Sadoun said, referring to the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, "because we've lived in Sadr City for 20 years, and everyone knows us and knows how we love the Shiites. But the Interior Ministry commandos arrest any Sunni. They don't just arrest them; they kill them."
Police in Baghdad discovered 17 corpses Tuesday, all men who were handcuffed and shot in the head, the Associated Press reported. Most had been dumped under a bridge.
Deaths reported publicly by police have represented a fraction of the total number of victims of execution-style, sectarian killings brought daily to Baghdad's morgue. Iraqi and international officials reported more than 1,000 people killed in central Iraq alone in the first week after the mosque bombing, and hundreds have died since.
Shiite-Sunni violence has intensified as Iraq drifts under the leadership of a caretaker government more than three months after national elections. In Baghdad, Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political leaders resumed negotiations on forming a new government Tuesday, a day after the talks were interrupted by Shiites' outcry over a U.S.-Iraqi raid Sunday on what the U.S. military said was an armed faction and what the Shiites said were Shiite men at prayer in a mosque.
In Washington, top Pentagon officials said Tuesday that Sunday's raid did not mark the start of a broader crackdown on Shiite militias and said U.S. troops were unaware until after breaching the compound that it contained a place of worship.
At a Pentagon briefing, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the raid targeted a kidnapping ring. He said an Iraqi counterterrorism unit and its U.S. Special Forces advisers discovered an Iraqi hostage and numerous weapons inside the compound, as well as a small minaret and prayer room. U.S. forces "did not know that that minaret was there on the way in," Pace said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described the raid as a distinct, Iraqi-led operation. The Iraqi leaders engaged in negotiations over forming a new government, he said, were unlikely now to make any "big announcements on changes in policy" toward militias.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington, special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf and other Washington Post staff members contributed to this report.