Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sectarian violence tears Baghdad into two parts

IRAQ: Sectarian violence tears Baghdad into two parts

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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Displaced by sectarian violence in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, 5 Dec 2006 (IRIN) - For decades, Iraq's six million-strong capital was a city where people mixed freely and did not care whether their neighbour was a Sunni or a Shi’ite Muslim.

But now, the years-old peaceful coexistence between members of different religions and sects in Baghdad is threatened with a battle underway between the two major Muslim sects to have their own territory in this war-torn city.

"A new Baghdad is now emerging, a Sunni west and a Shi’ite east with the broad Tigris River in the middle as a sectarian boundary," said Dr Jamal al-Uraibi, a Baghdad-based analyst who lectures in political science at the University of Baghdad.

"This will have adverse effects on Iraqi society for the coming generations as each sect has legitimate claims to territory on both sides of the river which they won't emotionally abandon," al-Uraibi added.

Sunnis were in power during former president Saddam Hussein's era and made up about 70 per cent of Baghdad’s population. After the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Sunnis saw the Shi’ite politicians and religious leaders who cooperated with the US as their enemies and, therefore, legitimate targets.

The rift between the sects widened dramatically this year following the 22 February bomb blast that destroyed an important Shi’ite shrine in the predominantly Sunni central Iraqi city of Samarra. From then on, Shi’ite hardliners stopped listening to their religious leaders’ appeals for restraint.

Some analysts say that Baghdad is being “de-Sunnified” by the mass emigration of Sunnis to other areas of the country. However, the extent of the reshuffling of Baghdad’s population according to sect remains unclear as no reliable data is available, although residents say that with increased sectarian warfare people in the city have been shifting to areas where their sect is predominant.

"You Shi'ites have no room among us, leave [and go] to your areas or have your heads chopped off," read one of dozens of leaflets distributed in Baghdad's western Sunni-dominated neighbourhood of Ghazaliyah last June.

Immediately, Abdul-Hussein Haider, a 55-year-old Shi’ite mathematics teacher, rushed to the nearby Sunni mosque to talk to its Imam and "correct any misunderstanding”.

However, Haider, who has been living in the area since 1982, said that the Imam whispered to him saying, "Brother, we can't live together anymore. I think we should be separated to live in peace."

"I taught generations in this neighbourhood and never asked a single student whether he was a Sunni or Shi’ite," said Haider, a father of five boys. He later moved to Shu'la, a Shi’ite neighbourhood in eastern Baghdad.

The bulk of Shi’ite power in Baghdad is in the city’s north-eastern Sadr City slum. It is an almost exclusively Shi’ite community of 2.5 million people and the stronghold of Shi’ite radical preacher Muqtada al-Sadr, head of an important and dreaded militia, the Mahdi Army.

From Sadr city, Mahdi militiamen can move across eastern Baghdad to reach areas to the south and east. This gives them a degree of control along the eastern and northern routes into the city - and they are trying to strengthen that control, analysts say.

On the opposite side of the river, Sunni insurgents are more active. They have turned the major western neighbourhoods of Jihad, Amiriyah, Ghazaliyah, Yarmouk and Mansour into virtual ‘no go’ zones for Shi’ites.

"But yet, Baghdad is still long a way from taking this [definitive] sectarian shape as there are many [sectarian] mixed neighbourhoods, and Shi’ite and Sunni enclaves remain on both sides of the river," al-Uraibi said.

For example, the major Shi’ite stronghold of Kadhimiyah, a neighbourhood that was set up around the shrine of eighth century Shi’ite saint Musa al-Kadhim, is located in the predominantly Sunni western Karkh side. While in the predominantly Shi’ite eastern Rasaffa side, Adhamiyah continues to be an overwhelmingly Sunni neighbourhood built up around its revered Sunni shrine, the Abu Hanifa mosque.

For months, Ala’a Qassim and Tara Khalid, a young Sunni couple, could not decide whether to move from new Baghdad, a mostly Shi’ite eastern neighbourhood and one of Baghdad's most dangerous. But after the murder of a fellow Sunni neighbour they decided it was time to go.

"We couldn't wait until we got killed," said Qassim, a 32-year-old taxi driver who now lives in a tiny apartment in Baghdad's Sunni-dominated neighbourhood of Amiriyah.

"It's a little better here, but at least we are Sunnis and [are] among hundreds of Sunnis," said his 24-year-old wife while clutching their one-year-old infant to her chest.



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