Feud In Iraqi Province Could Renew Sectarian Unrest

As the U.S. military looks to pull out most of its troops from Iraq by the end of this year, the country still faces the problem of sectarianism. In Diyala province, south of Baghdad, a Shiite tribe that had recently returned to its land after being displaced during sectarian fighting was attacked by a neighboring Sunni tribe. Now the Shiite tribe is forcing the Sunni tribe out of the area.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Iraq the plan is that that country will be able to keep the peace after the U.S. military pulls out most of its troops by the end of this year. We're going to hear a story now about how it may not work out as planned.

It's true that since the brutal war between Shiites and Sunnis in 2006 and '07, the top militant leaders on either side have either been captured or killed or put down their weapons. Still, friction between the groups remains and has turned deadly, as NPR's Kelly McEvers discovered on a trip south of Baghdad.

KELLY MCEVERS: In some way the story we're about to tell is a family feud. In other ways, it could be seen as a step toward renewed civil war.

So we're standing on this berm. We're staring down a man-made drainage canal. On either side of the canal are fields - fields of cucumbers and tomatoes.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through Translator) So this canal actually divides the two tribes. On your right there is the Bani Zaid family and on your left is the Khafaja tribe.

MCEVERS: The Bani Zaid family is Sunni. The Khafaja tribe is Shiite. The families started fighting each other when the sectarian war broke out. The Khafajas were forced to leave Diyala and head to Baghdad. Two years later, they came back. Officials assured them the Iraqi Army was in control. For a while it worked, says Abdullah Ahmed Salman. He's the head of the Khafaja tribe.

Mr. ABDULLAH AHMED SALMAN (Through Translator) We started to reconnect and reconcile with the other - the Sunni families. And everything was going well. We sat together, we talked, and, you know, we tried to reconcile and forget about the past.

MCEVERS: But then the attacks started up again. Salman says in the past six months, dozens of members of his tribe have been killed. Last week, a homemade bomb exploded under a pickup truck carrying some of the Khafaja family farm hands out into the fields. This man heard the explosion, then saw the truck burst into flames.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) And he said I couldn't do anything. I just run with my shovel. But the whole car was on fire, so I couldn't do anything.

MCEVERS: By the time he reached the truck, six people had burned to death. A mother, her six-year-old son, and four of her teenaged daughters.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: As we talk to the family, a woman runs up clutching the photographs of the victims.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Through Translator) This is the mother. And this is her son. And this is the two ladies here - Hanna Khabbaz and Hansa Khabbaz. She was pregnant and, you know, her - she was six months pregnant.

MCEVERS: Right then, a young guy falls to the ground.

Unidentified Woman #2: He fainted.

MCEVERS: Where are they taking him?

The guy stays unconscious while he's carried off to the hospital. His relatives later tell us he was in love with one of the dead girls.

We head to the other side of the canal, to a collection of mud houses belonging to the Sunni family - the Bani Zaid tribe. A small crowd of women, children, and older men gather around and sit on the floor. We ask them if they know who killed the girls in the pickup truck.

No, no, no, no, no, says the crowd. They accuse us of the killing, but really, it's al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is the one that's trying to stir up sectarian violence here.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: On one hand, you might say this story reveals a failure of post-war Iraq, that Iraqi officials should request some contingent of U.S. troops to remain here as long as possible, to play a kind of peacekeeping role between Shiites and Sunnis.

But the U.S. military already tried that, by bringing former Sunni militants into the Iraqi armed forces. That program has largely been dismantled in this region, especially now that the Shiites are in power.

Salman, the head of the Khafaja tribe, says what it comes down to now is local, Iraqi leadership. A commander can either rise above his own sectarian identity and treat Sunnis and Shiites as equals, as the previous commander did here. Or he can make decisions based on which side he's on, as Salman says the current commander is doing. Salman's message for the Iraqi government was this.

Mr. SALMAN: (Through Translator) They should find us a solution. Either to come and find us solution, or otherwise we will act unilaterally. And then we have to have weapons. And then we will do something about it.

MCEVERS: Do something, he says, like escalate this feud into an all-out battle.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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