Shiite, Sunni Muslims Keep to their Sects

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It was another bloody weekend in Iraq, and the violence seems increasingly to be a product of sectarian and ethnic tensions. Resentment between rival Muslim groups continues to grow — some families who have long lived in relative contentment in mixed Sunni and Shiite towns are beginning to fear their neighbors. Debbie Elliott talks with New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise about a tendency of Iraqis to segregate themselves according to sect.


Scores of Iraqis have been killed since Friday in attacks around the country. Much of the violence seems sectarian: Sunnis targeting Shiites, Shiites targeting Sunnis. In today's New York Times, reporter Sabrina Tavernise writes about the growing segregation of Iraqis by sect. She tells the story of a 12-year-old Shiite boy named Ali in the city of Samarra.

Ms. SABRINA TAVERNISE (The New York Times): He had been taking a nap in his family's living room, and several men came into the house and--some of them were dressed in police fatigues, uniforms. They started talking with his mother. They asked her why was the family still there if they were Shiites--Samarra was a Sunni city. And she replied that they had been there for 18 years and they had the right to be there. And they took gold necklaces from his sister, who was also sitting on a couch right near him, and then they killed every member of his family except for him. They shot his sister, and she fell close to him on the floor when she died; shot his mother, and they shot his father and two brothers, all of whom were lying on couches and beds. It was a very small, little house.

ELLIOTT: Are these sectarian attacks spontaneous, or are they well-organized?

Ms. TAVERNISE: It's sort of hard to tell. There are patterns, for sure, that repeat themselves: the list of names on the wall; the graffiti on the walls of gates around people's houses; leaflets are often distributed in the case of threats against Shiites. But it's not clear that it's one larger group responsible for the whole thing. I mean, in fact, it seems, to the contrary, that it's a lot of little groups that are also mixed with criminal elements, gangs. There's a real kind of vicious sectarian hatred, but at the same time they're not above taking somebody's money and their jewelry and their car at the same time that they're trying to drive them from their house or they're coming in to kill them because of their sect.

ELLIOTT: Now because of all this violence, people are moving in interesting ways. You tell this story actually of a Sunni and a Shiite who ended up trading houses in different cities because they couldn't stay where they were.

Ms. TAVERNISE: Yeah, these segments were very interesting because it shows, really, kind of the whole arc of it. I mean, it shows that people were very mixed, families were very mixed. Sunnis have married Shiites; you can't tell the difference between what people look like. And, really, the religious differences are very small. There are big connections among these communities that are not traditionally segregated. But increasingly as the violence, you know, continues to drive people apart and make people angry and make people not trust each other, families are just picking up and moving.

ELLIOTT: Is this a problem that's happened because of the war or after the war, or was this happening prior?

Ms. TAVERNISE: A lot of Iraqis like to say that this was something that only came up after the war, and I think in a sense it's true; that it came up in such a violent and kind of traumatic way after the war simply because the limits came off, and all of a sudden anybody could do or say anything they wanted to. But the prejudice has been deeply embedded for a very long time and was really encouraged by Saddam. His very elite military and the secret police units were almost always Sunni. Shiites had a lot of problems, you know, in terms of reaching very senior positions in the government or in the military. Of course, they were there, but for the most part the Shiites were a sort of underclass under Saddam. And now that Sunnis are no longer running things, there's a real resentment that's coming up.

ELLIOTT: Sabrina Tavernise is a reporter with The New York Times.

Thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. TAVERNISE: Thank you very much.

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