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Questionnaires stir unease in Baghdad enclave

In Baghdad, a Shiite-led government attempts to collect household information on forms, but instead unleashes fears of ethnic cleansing.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The document appeared harmless enough -- a computer-generated form, on white paper, seeking personal information. The two Iraqi soldiers who handed it to Abu Samir at his house were polite and respectful. But when the Christian shopkeeper took a closer look, he froze.

The document asked for a copy of the deed to his house, his children's names and, most disturbing, the name of his tribe, which identifies his religion and ethnicity. In Iraq, such a request has often been the first step toward death.

"When I saw it, it was like someone was trying to push us back to the previous era," said Abu Samir, 48, who lives in Zayouna, an ethnically mixed, upper-middle-class enclave in eastern Baghdad. "We are afraid that sectarianism will come back."

The forms were part of an effort to enhance the rule of law and encourage reconciliation by identifying residents living in houses that had been emptied by sectarian cleansing and prodding them to return to their own neighborhoods.

In 2006, many people fleeing sectarian tensions in other areas entered Zayouna and occupied vacant houses there. Now, authorities are determined to bring displaced people back. But with a newly assertive Shiite-led government taking over security and U.S. troops increasingly playing a support role, the forms unleashed fears they were a prelude to more ethnic cleansing.

"The security situation is still fragile," said Numan al-Bayati, 35, a Sunni government employee, who also received the form. "We don't know if the soldiers are working for the country or for a political party. Trust needs to be built step by step."

Saddam Hussein built this enclave of palatial, sand-colored houses and manicured lawns for his military officers. Later, it grew to include a highly educated class of civil servants, professors and businessmen. Sunnis, Shiites and Christians lived side by side; many intermarried.

But after the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, sectarian rifts split the community. Sunnis and Shiites alike tried their best to remain invisible or fled their homes. American troops, once hated here as occupiers, were trusted more by many residents than the mostly Shiite Iraqi security forces.

Unlike in other parts of Baghdad, neighbors did not fight each other. Armed gangs of Sunnis and Shiites from outside the area perpetrated the killings and kidnappings. When U.S. and Iraqi forces launched offensives against those armed groups last year, Zayouna was among the first enclaves to see improvements in security. Today, blast walls and concrete barriers block most roads into the neighborhood, and Iraqi soldiers and policemen man checkpoints and conduct patrols.

Once-shuttered stores now stay open late, and fashionably dressed women walk alone. Residents who for years remained locked inside their homes wash cars in driveways, water lawns and socialize with neighbors without care for sect or religion.

"We don't have any problems with each other," said Ammar Muhammed, 35, a Sunni pharmacist. "It is the strangers who brought the sectarian problems."

Two weeks ago, two Iraqi soldiers knocked on the door of Abu Rabab, a 61-year-old retired government employee and a Sunni, and handed him the white form. It bore no official emblem or signature from a government ministry. The soldiers told him they needed his personal information for statistical purposes.

Abu Rabab was suspicious. He didn't know the soldiers. The memories rushed back. Last year, gunmen disguised in security force uniforms kidnapped his brother and demanded a $100,000 ransom. Abu Rabab's family paid. But the kidnappers tortured and killed his brother, anyway. "They broke every bone in his body," Abu Rabab said. So he took the form and, after the soldiers left, tore it into pieces.

On Friday, he sat outside his house with his neighbor Abu Sahar, 50, a merchant. In 2006, Shiite militiamen disguised as soldiers abducted and killed Abu Sahar's son, Jabbar. Abu Sahar provided a false tribal name on his form.

"They will give it to the militias," said Abu Rabab, making a slicing motion across his neck with his index finger. "Two or three days later, they will come to your house and take you."

A few minutes later, a police convoy passed by. The two men fell silent and sat down on a low wall, urging a visitor to do the same and not utter a word.

"We don't trust anybody," Abu Sahar said after waving meekly at the policemen. Abu Rabab nodded and added, "The problem is we don't know who they are."

On the next block, Abu Omar, 40, also a Sunni, washed his white Chevrolet Cavalier in his driveway. When he received the form, he said, he thought about the unpaved road, pocked with potholes and trenches, that ran past his house. "They can kill not only by guns, but by other ways," he said.

He resented, he said, that predominantly Shiite neighborhoods such as Karrada, in southern Baghdad, had electricity at night while people in Zayouna remained in the dark or were forced to rely on generators. He says the government is neglecting Zayouna because its residents were members of Hussein's military and fought against Shiite Iran.

"It is like mass punishment," said Abu Omar, the son of a former military officer. In 2006, his uncle and cousin were killed by Shiite militiamen as they were on their way to pray at a nearby mosque. "Why do we complain to the Americans and not the government? Because we trust them more."

"When the politicians trust each other, then the people will trust each other," said Bayati, the government employee.

Muhammed Saad, 23, had no problem with the forms. He said he had complete trust in the Iraqi security forces. Saad is a Shiite.

Inside a tan building tucked behind blast walls, Maj. Raad al-Kaisi, the wiry, self-assured commander of the 43rd Brigade, 1st Battalion sat next to a stack of filled-out forms. Over the past three weeks, his soldiers had handed out nearly 7,000 of them. There were no more than 200 on the shelf.

The purpose of the forms, he said, was to check residents' names using deeds or rental agreements in order to identify and evict squatters. Asked why tribal names were requested, when deeds and rental contracts do not require such information, Kaisi shrugged. "We were told by our superiors to ask for the tribal name," he said. "But people shouldn't be afraid."

Some officers, however, suggested a sectarian motive.

"Why do we ask for the tribal name?" said Abu Hassan, 34, a brawny Shiite military intelligence officer. "A lot of Shiite families have been displaced from their houses in Zayouna. We can evaluate how many Shiites have returned."

At Abu Samir's store last week, a familiar fear gripped the shopkeeper when two Iraqi soldiers walked up. His face turned pale, his voice vanished. He signaled a visitor to put away a notebook. The policemen smiled and bought soft drinks. When they left, Abu Samir exhaled.

"Maybe if the Americans had come with the Iraqi soldiers, I would have filled out the form," he said.