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For Iraq’s Sunnis, conflict closes in

In the past two months, Shiite militiamen have tightened their grip on the central Baghdad neighborhood of Tobji, purging dozens of Sunni families, by fear and by threats.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A few blocks from Ali Farouk's three-story home, an empty house provides a glimpse of what he fears will be the future. Once owned by a Sunni Muslim, the paint is peeling, the windows are blown out. Two scarlet X's mark the pale blue front door.

To the door's right are the words: "Not for Sale. Wanted."

According to neighbors, "Wanted" refers to the former owner, who fled after crossing paths with the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The gunmen accused the owner of killing four of their own at a checkpoint. Then they took over his house.

To the door's left, the words: "This is vengeance for the other day."

Farouk, a Sunni Muslim, fears his home might be targeted next. In the past two months, Shiite militiamen have tightened their grip on his central Baghdad neighborhood of Tobji, purging dozens of Sunni families, by fear and by threats. His world has become even more precarious since a barrage of car bombs, mortar shells and missiles killed more than 200 on Nov. 23 in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum that is home to many of Sadr's loyalists.

So Farouk began preparing to do what neither his father nor his grandfather could have imagined in their Iraq: flee Tobji, an enclave where Shiites and Sunnis have coexisted for more than half a century. Farouk plans to join the more than 400,000 Iraqis who have fled their homes, an exodus that is reshaping the face of Baghdad into neighborhoods polarized along sectarian lines.

On Saturday, Farouk's mission grew more urgent. In the latest spasm of revenge attacks, gangs of Shiite gunmen stormed Hurriyah, a mixed neighborhood adjacent to Tobji, torching houses, killing at least two Sunni Arabs and driving out dozens of Sunni families. On Sunday, in interviews across Tobji, Sunni Arabs worried that their fate could soon mirror their brethren's.

"It is coming like a wave," said Khudir Mahmoud, 32, after his midday prayers. "If the government doesn't intervene, the wave will reach here. We are only one street away."

The unraveling of Tobji and Hurriyah is the latest setback for the nation's Sunni minority, which is still seeking a political foothold in Iraq in the fourth year of war. Sunnis were once part of the country's privileged class, with government jobs, but their days and nights are now filled with fear and dread unlike anything they felt since the toppling of President Saddam Hussein.

"We are stuck in a big hole waiting for Lucifer to take our souls," said Farouk, 46, a father of seven. "At any moment we can die."

Rabiaa Street, a dusty, congested thoroughfare, flows through central Baghdad west of the Tigris River. Along one stretch, near a patch of machinery shops, Hurriyah and Tobji face each other across the street. In Arabic, Hurriyah means freedom. Tobji's official name is Salaam. It means peace.

Worry despite precautions
On one side, the road streams into Hurriyah's core, past a Sunni mosque that was destroyed, past a satellite office of Sadr, where clusters of young men lingered, past signs that read "Long Live Shia."

On the other side of Rabiaa Street is a set of railroad tracks nestled on the edge of Tobji, a working-class community of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. In recent months, bodies of both Shiites and Sunnis have been dumped along the tracks, residents said Sunday. The killings are evidence of how the war to control the capital is spreading and how Shiite militiamen are increasingly pushing into western Baghdad, where Sunnis dominate.

Farouk's house sits in the heart of Tobji, around the corner from walls with black markings that read "Long Live Sadr." He is burly, with a long, oval face and a thin gray mustache, one of three Sunnis who live on the block.

He met a journalist first on Nov. 30, a week after the Sadr City attacks, on the condition that his father's, grandfather's and tribe's names not be used. Farouk is his great-grandfather's name. He told his Shiite neighbors that he was receiving a visit from co-workers at the government ministry where he is employed.

Even with those precautions, he was worried. Fearful of attracting attention, he rushed his visitor to the second-floor living room of his house. At the top of the narrow staircase, a large poster of Imam Ali, the most revered Shiite saint, along with several other important Shiite figures, stared from a wall. Farouk said he put up the posters the day of the Sadr City attacks -- in case Shiite militiamen came that night. He has no plans to take them down, he said.

"I am scared. I am Sunni," he said that day.

In the 1950s, Farouk's Sunni father moved to Tobji. Farouk's mother was a Shiite, and his first name, Ali, is given to both Shiites and Sunnis. He went to school with Shiites and had Shiite friends. Neither sect nor ethnicity defined his identity, even when Hussein, a Sunni, brutally oppressed the Shiite community after he took power.

The war didn't reach Tobji in full force until this year. In January, gunmen wearing police uniforms and driving police vehicles abducted 53 Sunnis. Most were never seen again. The next month, a Shiite shrine in the town of Samarra was bombed, triggering cycles of revenge killings.

Mixed neighborhoods across Baghdad, including this one, started to rip apart. Still, after each attack, Tobji managed to heal momentarily, because of a tribal leadership of Sunnis and Shiites that is struggling to preserve the bonds between their communities.

Today, the last mile to Farouk's house is a showcase of the danger that threatens to overtake their efforts. Around the corner from an Iraqi army checkpoint, young men wearing dark clothes and clutching AK-47 assault rifles stand guard, a testament to the fact that they, not the Iraqi soldiers, are in charge. Some clutch black two-way radios; others stare fixedly into cars. On Sunday, one man stood in the middle of the street with a small piece of white paper, checking the license plates of cars.

The affiliation of the men with guns can be discerned by looking at a nearby concrete barrier. Scrawled in red paint are words boldly expressed in Arabic: "Yes for the Mahdi Army."

Women in black, head-to-toe abayas float like shadows in the sun here. A few blocks away, residents walk past the empty, disfigured house of the Sunni Arab without casting a glance. On a visit four weeks ago, Mahdi Army militiamen, including one who sat in a yellow plastic chair in the middle of the road, stopped cars and demanded:

"Why are you here? What is your tribe?"

A Shiite, killed in error
His tribal name didn't help Khelan Jassim Muhammed, 46, a grocer and father of six girls, from becoming a victim of the killing in Hurriyah.

Two weeks ago, he moved from Tobji to Hurriyah to occupy a house left empty by relatives who had moved to the United Arab Emirates. Muhammed, his relatives said, felt safe. He was a Shiite from the Ajaeli tribe.

Last Wednesday, he left his home in the morning and never returned. After a frantic search, his brothers found his body the next morning in the morgue. His corpse had been discovered in a trash dump in a Shiite neighborhood.

"He was handcuffed from the back and had two bullets holes in the back of his head," Khatan Jassim, 41, one of his brothers, said Sunday. As he finished the sentence, silence fell upon his family's spare, white-lit living room, where seven relatives were seated in a semicircle. Before they sat down on a large red carpet, they said a prayer, their palms facing upward in the Shiite tradition. They had lived all their lives in Tobji, just down the road from the empty Sunni Arab house.

Khatan Jassim, a taxi driver with a wide nose, thick neck and sun-leathered skin, said his brother's death bore the trademark of the Mahdi Army.

There are Sunnis and Shiites in the Ajaeli tribe, he explained. His brother, he added, was also carrying an identification card issued in Abu Ghraib, a Sunni area.

"There was a misunderstanding from the Sadr office," Jassim said. "They didn't know he was a Shia."

At the funeral, Sadr's representatives came to offer their condolences. Jassim confronted them. They denied any involvement.

"They gave us an excuse," Jassim recalled. "They said, 'Why would we kidnap him and dump his body in a dumpster? We control the neighborhood. We could have gone inside his house and killed him.' "

Across the street from the concrete barrier with the Mahdi Army proclamation, 25 Sunnis gathered Sunday at the Suhail Mosque for midday prayers. Young and old, they prayed solemnly, their hands at their side. Their small numbers spoke of their fears.

"This is half of what it used to be," said Khalid Mahmoud, 45, a mosque official and Khudir Mahmoud's brother. "People are staying home. They are worried about their security. Even if they come, their minds will be preoccupied."

A feeling of siege
"Most of the Sunnis here feel like they are under siege," he added.

As Mahmoud spoke, Abdul Wahad, 26, nodded in agreement. Dressed in a blue and orange Puma tracksuit jacket, he said he no longer hangs out on the streets. He has stopped pursuing his degree in economics because he's worried about getting killed.

"We don't trust the checkpoints," he said.

Added Khalid Mahmoud, "After the Sadr City bombings, none of us have left Tobji."

Ten days ago, three Sunnis were kidnapped, including the brother of the mosque's custodian. He still hasn't been found. On Sunday, Khudir Mahmoud sent a woman to the morgue to inquire whether his body had turned up. He was too afraid to go by himself because the Health Ministry is controlled by Shiites loyal to Sadr. The custodian now plans to quit and move his family to Samarra.

On the day Sadr City was attacked, a Shiite friend a few blocks away phoned Farouk to warn that Shiite militiamen were rumored to be roaming Tobji in search of Sunni men. He invited Farouk to stay at his house. Farouk and his two grown sons gratefully accepted. His wife and five smaller children stayed behind. The next day, Farouk and his sons returned. He loaded his AK-47 and kept it in his bedroom.

The day after a three-day curfew was lifted, Farouk went to work, switching taxis in case he was being followed. He was stopped at a checkpoint, he said. A Shiite policeman asked whether he was a Sunni or Shiite. Farouk replied that he was Iraqi, then flashed his government identification card. "You son of dogs," the policeman said but waved him through.

For the next three days, Farouk stayed inside his house. "I can't even walk to the main street," he said Nov. 30. "At 6 p.m., I lock my door and stay inside."

At night, the family slept together in the living room while Farouk kept watch for a possible attack. One night, a sound on the roof sent him rushing up with his gun. It was water dropping into a tank. "I am like a prisoner," he said.

Settling scores
In the living room that day, Farouk was expressing anger at the United States for invading Iraq, for disenfranchising the Sunnis. Listening in was his nephew, Ihab Bashir, 30. Farouk framed his plight in political terms, blaming the Shiite-led government for settling scores from the past. "There is no democracy," Farouk said, shaking his head in dismay.

Farouk's 10-year-old son, Omar, entered the living room. Thin with an angular face, he wore jeans and a yellow shirt. When asked his name, he replied in a voice not much louder than a whisper: "Amar."

Amar is a common Shiite name. Farouk had instructed him to lie about his name to strangers. Why didn't he use his real name?

"Because of those people, the Mahdi Army," Omar said.

Why is his father still staying at home?

Omar paused. "Perhaps the Mahdi Army will come and raid the Sunni homes and kill him."

Seven video compact disc recordings of Sadr's sermons, his stern, bearded visage splashed on every cover, sat on the brown sofa. Farouk's 15-year-old son had bought them the day after the curfew. When he came home, he slipped one of the discs into the VCD player and turned up the volume so all the family's Shiite neighbors could hear.

Omar pointed at them and said, "We have those VCDs for the Mahdi Army not to hurt us."

Farouk's plan is to flee to Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, one of the most violent places in Iraq. He said he does not care about the danger. His sect is the majority there. Just as the Shiites turn to the militias for protection, he now views the Sunni Arab insurgents as his family's guardians.

‘Mujaheddin will protect us’
"The mujaheddin will protect us," Farouk said. "We heard they are helping Sunnis who move there with cooking oil, rice, sugar and fuel."

In the interim, he's decided that the best protection is to rekindle his ties to his Shiite neighbors. In recent days, he has invited some of them to have soda or tea inside his house. He hopes they will notice the poster of Imam Ali. He hopes they will vouch for him if the Mahdi Army attacks.

"I tell everyone that my mother is a Shiite," Farouk said. "I am trying to get closer to them. It's about saving my life."

On Sunday, Farouk was still bracing for a Shiite attack. Two days ago, he bought another poster of Imam Ali and other revered Shiite saints for the living room.