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No relief from fear for Baghdad families

A seven-month-old security offensive was intended to bring enough calm to Baghdad and other areas to resuscitate Iraq societally, politically and physically. Achieving those goals has proved elusive.
A woman passes through a checkpoint in north Baghdad's Khazimiyah neighborhood on Aug. 8.
A woman passes through a checkpoint in north Baghdad's Khazimiyah neighborhood on Aug. 8.Petr David Josek / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Driven by fear and desperation, Um Abdullah's parents, who are Sunnis, swapped homes with a Shiite family they have known for years. Her parents moved to a section of Baghdad's Saidiya neighborhood controlled by Sunni insurgents. And their friends moved into her family home in the Risala area, controlled by Shiite militias. Each family left behind their furniture, so they could move swiftly and in secret.

It seemed a perfect solution in a capital whose polarization along sectarian lines has deepened this year, despite the influx of 30,000 U.S. military reinforcements. But within days of the arrival of Um Abdullah's parents two months ago, Shiite militias pushed deeper into Saidiya, driving out hundreds of Sunni families. The parents' fear returned.

"If they leave their house in Saidiya, that means they will lose their house in Risala because they made the exchange," said Um Abdullah, who would allow only her nickname to be used because of safety concerns. "My parents feel trapped."

A seven-month-old security offensive was intended to bring enough calm to Baghdad and other areas to resuscitate Iraq societally, politically and physically. Achieving those goals has proved elusive.

While statistics assessing the strife in Iraq are murky, one set -- unofficial Interior Ministry and morgue data provided to The Washington Post -- indicates that the number of Iraqis who died violently in August was less than half the number in January. The statistics echo the assertions of U.S. military officials that such deaths are down, although a Government Accountability Office report on Iraq released Tuesday said it was "not clear if sectarian violence has been reduced."

At the same time, the number of Iraqi corpses found dumped on street corners was higher in August than before the security offensive began and the number of Iraqis leaving their homes has increased significantly in recent months.

‘Where could we move?’
For some there is nowhere to go. "Where could we move? The whole Iraq is the same now," said Um Abdullah, a 33-year-old mother of four children who lives in Dora, another dangerous neighborhood. Today, in a capital carved up by checkpoints and sectarian no-go zones, Um Abdullah is more isolated than ever from her parents, speaking to them only by telephone. "I would never go back to Saidiya," she said. "They can come visit me, if they want."

The violence continues to divide Iraq, paralyzing its political system and efforts at national reconciliation. Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region is forging ahead with its own oil law as national legislation to share Iraq's oil revenue -- a key benchmark demanded by the Bush administration -- remains stuck in a political and nationalistic bog.

In areas secured by U.S. troops, American officials are inadvertently breeding dependence as they attempt to promote reconstruction. U.S. officials say they are frustrated that Iraq's Shiite-led government is failing to spend $10 billion of its own oil revenue to provide basic services and rebuild infrastructure, especially in Sunni communities.

Two months ago, Adeeb Fahad al-Azzawi also fled Saidiya. He had seen one too many firefights, one too many bodies dumped on the street where he had lived for 15 years. Tall, with cropped silvery hair and smoke-gray eyes, the 75-year-old Sunni dispatched his daughter to her in-laws in Mosul. He and his wife moved in with relatives in Zafraniya, a nearby area. His 25-year-old son, Abbas, remained to take care of their house.

One month ago, Shiite militiamen stopped a minivan and separated out the Sunni passengers. Abbas was among them. The gunmen, Abbas's father recalled, pounded pistol butts into his body and face, then left him for dead. He survived and fled Saidiya the next day.

"Up to this moment, his mind is not stable," said Azzawi, his voice tinged with anger and sadness.

From January to July, nearly 100,000 Iraqis fled their homes each month, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization. In its midyear review, the International Organization for Migration, a U.N. agency, also reported a spike in displacement, saying that 63 percent of cases it assessed involved a reported direct threat to life.

"The stability that was anticipated as a result of various security plans has not materialized, and as the violence continues in Iraq, so will the displacement," the agency said.

In the past few months, real estate agent Alla Thabit has funneled dozens of displaced families into homes in Baghdad's upscale Karrada neighborhood. Nearly all were from tense mixed areas. At the start of the security offensive in February, five families walked into his office each day, on average. Now, that number has tripled.

"The security plan has failed in the neighborhoods. This is why they are moving," Thabit said. "I have not seen anyone moving back to their homes."

The influx has driven up rents in Karrada, considered one of Baghdad's safest and most tolerant enclaves but increasingly the scene of car bombings and mortar fire. Still, displaced Iraqis still flow into Thabit's sparsely furnished office. Today, the majority of his clients are from Saidiya.

Mother watches as husband, son killed
Some fled after being threatened, others purely out of fear. One family, he said, had a body dumped in front of their house. Another packed up after their neighbor was murdered. One mother watched as Shiite militiamen killed her husband and son. Afterward, the gunmen ordered her and her daughter-in-law to leave Saidiya.

"They came here on the same day. They were crying," recalled Thabit, who found them an apartment. "If they had stayed, they would have been killed."

Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, the top Iraqi commander of the security offensive, conceded in an interview that "displacements were taking place" in Baghdad. What is unfolding in Saidiya, he said, was due to crackdowns in neighboring areas that were pushing Sunni and Shiite extremists into the enclave. He added that Iraqi and U.S. forces had the situation "under control."

The tensions in Saidiya are adding to the obstacles to political reconciliation. Sunni leaders, already disenchanted with the Shiite-led government, blame Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces for allowing Shiite militias to infiltrate the area.

"What we are seeing on the ground is that police and the army are protecting the militias and facilitating their access to Sunni areas," said Adnan al-Dulaimi, a senior Sunni politician. "What is taking place in Saidiya is the greatest example where attacks are taking place against the Sunni residents to drive them to emigrate and leave their houses for the militias to loot."

Residents said Sunni militants and elements of the Mahdi Army, the militia allied with Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, were battling for control of their neighborhood -- part of a broader struggle for influence also unfolding in other areas of the capital.

Residents describe a brutal topography where houses are being burned and where extremists from both sides have taken over homes, partitioning the area into Sunni and Shiite zones. Snipers and street-to-street gunfights are now common. Shops have closed. Families hide inside their houses, many pocked with bullet holes. Some refuse even to answer the doorbell.

"You never know who is shooting at you," Azzawi said.

The enclave illustrates the limits of the security plan. Even with the reinforcements and scores of joint security stations across Baghdad, it is impossible for U.S. troops to be everywhere. In Saidiya, there is one small U.S. combat outpost, but extremists dominate the neighborhood.

‘A stranger in my own neighborhood’
"Every once in a while a patrol passes for a few minutes. What benefits will this bring? " said Abu Yousef, 60, a Transportation Ministry employee. "They cannot maintain security. This is the fact in Saidiya. There are a lot of areas like this in Baghdad."

Abu Yousef, who out of fear asked that his full name not be used, cannot afford to move his family out of Saidiya, he said. Every time he and his relatives hear gunfire, they lock themselves inside their house, waiting for silence. Dozens of neighbors have left, he said.

"The moment they put their stuff in the car and leave, this is the worst thing," Abu Yousef said. "I've become a stranger in my own neighborhood."

Staff writer Megan Greenwell and special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Saad al-Izzi and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.