Ethnic Chechens Caught Up in Iraq Violence

The residents of Iraq's Diyala Province include a group of Chechens whose ancestors arrived in Iraq in 1890. About 30 families remain. Despite efforts to steer clear of sectarian tensions, their main village was overrun by Shiite militia recently.

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In Iraq's Diyala province is a village called Chechen. And yes, its residents are ethnic Chechens. They're 800 miles away from their traditional homeland in Southern Russia. The 30 Chechen families in the village have tried to steer clear of the ongoing violence around them. But the Chechens have now become the latest victims in Iraq's sectarian warfare.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports.

JAMIE TARABAY: He's got light brown hair and his blue eyes are tired from worry and days without sleep. Munsi Mahmoud(ph), one of the Chechen community's leaders has spent the past few days placing people from his village into the homes of sympathetic neighbors. They were forced to flee after Shiite militiamen targeted their village in retaliation for an attack on one of their villages earlier this month.

Mr. MUNSI MAHMOUD (Chechen Community Leader): (Through translator) Al-Qaida -whatever you call it - struck the Shiites in the village of Balar(ph), killed 14. They were able to attack Balar by coming through the orchards.

TARABAY: In response, Mahmoud says, Shiite militias gathered in their hundreds and turned on the nearest Sunnis they could find - the Chechens. The militiamen attacked the Chechen village and burned down most of its houses and orchards. The Iraqi army intervened and managed to evacuate the local before the entire village went up in flames, says Mahmoud.

Mr. MAHMOUD: (Through translator) If the Iraqi army hadn't come, it would have all been gone. They brought everyone out. But even on the road, the militias were firing on us.

TARABAY: Among the wounded Chechens were women and children. Mahmoud and other village elders went to the mayor's office in the nearby town of Muqtadiya to appeal for help. Mayor Najem Harbi says the Chechens are peaceful people.

Mayor NAJEM HARBI (Muqtadiya, Iraq): (Through translator) I can tell you, these people have nothing to do with the sectarian war. They are educated, liberal and peaceful.

TARABAY: Most of the Chechens who live here are third or fourth generation descendants of those who wandered from Russia, traversing Persia and reaching Iraq almost 200 years ago. Mahmoud, the village elder, says Chechens live in Mosul, Irbil and Kirkuk in Iraq's north. Others traveled as far as Jordan, Syria and Turkey.

The U.S. militaries had a long-standing relationship with the Chechens here. Lieutenant Anthony Vomplinsky(ph) from Apache Troop of the 69th Cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Division remembers the first time his patrol stumbled into the Chechen village nearly a year ago. There, he says, he saw men with hair that was whiter than snow.

Lieutenant ANTHONY VOMPLINSKY (Apache Troop, 69th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division): We drove down there and the Muqta or the head guy of the this area came out, spoke pretty good English, stopped us and asked to take us around his town. Seemed like he was very proud of his town, very proud of his people down there and stuff like that.

TARABAY: Vomplinsky says the U.S. military has never had any problems with the Chechens.

Lt. VOMPLINSKY: They usually kept to themselves. They don't really come out and do much dealings with Muqtadiya in general. They understand that their symbiotic relationship - they're going to feed off of the other and this is the inevitability of living close to each other.

TARABAY: Mahmoud, the Chechen village elder, said his people have always tried to be friendly with their Iraqi-Arab neighbors. But he believes their mere presence and ownership of Iraqi land would someday create problems for his village.

Mr. MAHMOUD: (Through translator) Even until now, the Arabs look at us, our lands, like we are different. Their aim has always been to take back our land. This has been their intention for a very long time.

TARABAY: Mahmoud says he doesn't know how to speak the language of his forefathers. He only speaks Arabic. He considers himself an Iraqi. But like other minorities in this country, he thinks he and his people will never be accepted no matter how long they live here.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.

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