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Baghdad's Sunni Muslims Fear Repeat of Iraq's Darkest Days

With much of Iraq worried about the scourge of violent Sunni extremists, Sunnis in Baghdad are grappling with a deadly sense of déjà vu.
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BAGHDAD - The bodies of the disappeared have started turning up, dumped in local squares. The death threats have, too - knocks on the door and warning to get out of town, or else.

With much of Iraq worried about the scourge of violent Sunni extremists, Sunnis in Baghdad are grappling with a deadly sense of déjà vu.

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Iraq’s capital, which is mainly divided into Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, witnessed some of the worst sectarian bloodletting when violence in the country peaked 2006 and 2007. As al Qaeda was waging a brutal campaign against the Shiite-led government, Shiite militias mobilized on Iraq’s streets – carrying out assassinations and ethnic cleansing in Sunni neighborhoods.

Sunni extremists once again are wreaking havoc in the country – this time under the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Top Shiite clerics have issued a call to arms, urging the formation of militias to defend the capital city of 7 million.

While Sunnis in Baghdad also fear the brutal fighters, they worry that the Shiite militias roaming around and protecting the capital could turn against them in a ghastly repeat of Iraq’s darkest days.

"I am living in a state of horror, I am worried all the time," one terrified Sunni told NBC News. "I walk down the street looking over my shoulder."

With reports of drive-by shootings involving bikers, he added, "when I see a motorbike I flinch."

In his mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood of Mashtal, many Sunnis have already fled with their belongings, said the man, an electrician in his mid-30s who insisted on anonymity because he said he feared for his and his family’s lives.

"The situation has gone back to how it was in 2006 to 2007," he told NBC News. "The Sunnis have left the area, many have been killed."

He spoke of death threats and letters slipped under Sunni residents’ doors, warning them to leave town. The married father with a young child said he wishes he could flee but doesn’t have the money.

Things had settled down in Baghdad following the campaigns of violence that once coursed through the city’s streets – but sectarian strife “came back very suddenly” when ISIS exploded onto the scene, he said.

"It’s like the domino effect," he explained. "One thing happens there – ISIS killing Shiites, and another thing happens here – Shiite militias killing Sunnis."

Other neighborhoods are gripped by similar fears. Even though he lives in a Sunni-dominated area in west Baghdad, one government worker told NBC News he only leaves the house to go to his job – and changes his commute routine regularly to make it more difficult for a militia to pick him up.

"I obtained a fake ID because I am scared of the militias ... It has saved me from death many times"

"The militias come and go as they please - my life is tied to chance, to coincidentally running into them," he told NBC News, echoing the electrician's request for anonymity. "We – the Sunni community - live in fear, in constant worry ... This is a carbon copy of what happened in 2006.”

The man – who is in his late 30s and lives with his wife, three children and mother in west Baghdad – said he sends his mother out to do the shopping, hoping that a militia would be less likely to “hurt an old lady.”

Just as he did in 2006, he acquired false documents which identify him as Shiite to present to checkpoint guards outside of his neighborhood.

"I obtained a fake ID because I am scared of the militias,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t get away with the lie in his own neighborhood. "I have used it many times, it has saved me from death many times."

On the first day of Ramadan, a Sunni friend disappeared along with his father after evening prayers.

"They found his and his father’s bodies in a square," he told NBC News.

While he has been in his government job for 15 years, he too said he wants to leave Iraq, but doesn’t have the money, know where to go or what kind of work he would find elsewhere.

"Who would give me a job? Who would give me a house?” he asks in despair. “I have a family, I have kids, how am I to feed them?"

Like many Iraqis – Sunni and Shiite alike – he expressed fears that a break-up in Iraq is inevitable.

"Before that happens, blood will be spilled – it will be a butchery," he said. "I really hope that I am wrong."