Iraqis Increasingly Fear Possibility of Civil War

Fears of a civil war in Iraq continue to grow. While insurgent bombings against U.S. and Iraqi government forces attract most of the attention outside Iraq, it is growing sectarian violence that pre-occupies most people inside the country.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

This month the former commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, Ricardo Sanchez, said the country is on the verge of civil war and for many in Iraq that war has already begun. Here's Sunni political leader Tariq Al-Hashemi speaking to NPR last week.

Mr. Tariq Al-Hashemi (Sunni political leader) Well I think the civil war's already started. It's only a declaration. We might be held (unintelligible) that we have already started. Now movement of Sunnis from Baghdad, South is dangerous. Moving of Shiite from Baghdad to the West is dangerous. And people killed on their ID cards. This is civil war

BLOCK: That's Sunni leader Tariq Al-Hashemi. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Baghdad. She has this report on the growing sectarian tensions in Iraq and what they may mean for the country's future.

LOURDES GARCIA: It began with a mosque. Brick by brick it rose as a largely Sunni neighborhood of Alhatra(ph) in Baghdad. When it became clear that it was meant for Shiite worshipers, the killings began. Amar(ph) the student was the first to be shot. Next was Fars(ph) the day laborer and Said Bosun(ph), too, was killed in his corner shop. The men all had two things in common. They were Shiite and they were helping in some way to build the mosque. Ali Muneen(ph) was among those contributing money and supplies for construction. He said once the Shiites realized what was going on, they became terrified.

ALI MUNEEN: (through translator) We stopped seeing each other. We communicated by phone but you know everyone was in fear for their lives and the lives of their family.

GARCIA: So Muneen decided to leave the neighborhoods he had lived in all his life. It was just in time. Three more men from the Shiite community were killed in the same way. A single shot to the head. Other Shiites began to flee them as well. Muneen says he doesn't see an end to the bloodshed.

MUNEEN: (through translator) It's getting worse. I'm telling you there are people who are igniting these conflicts to have a civil war. Unfortunately, our government is far away from our reality and it cannot be solved. There is no one who can stop this.

GARCIA: While most people outside Iraq focus on the suicide bombings and other insurgent attacks that are taking place, there is something more insidious happening here. Neighborhood by neighborhood, this country is being divided. In Baghdad, the Sunnis are located to the West, flanked by the River Tigris and the Airport Road. Almost everything else is Shiite dominated. Both sects are seeing killings in their communities. Mohammed Abu Ibrahain(ph) is a Sunni who lived in a mainly Shiite area. He spoke to us by phone, too afraid of having his new house identified.

MOHAMMED ABU IBRAHAIN: (through translator) We were one of the big families who lived in (unintelligible). We lived in good conditions there. We were rich. We are kind people and never hurt anyone.

GARCIA: Then one day says Ibrahain, Iraqi police commanders raided the houses of the Sunnis in the neighborhood. He says he and his brothers were arrested and tortured. He said the mostly Shiite police hinted that it was time to move somewhere else. After his release, he says, Shiite acquaintances also told him it was time to go.

ABU IBRAHAIN: (through translator) It is an immigration operation. They are forcing the immigration of Sunnis from the Shiite neighborhoods. The police, when we were in jail, did not tell us directly to leave, it was more like hints. But more than one friend told me to leave my place and those who advised me were all Shiites.

GARCIA: After he received a threat letter, he took their advice. And most of the other Sunni families in the area have left too, afraid of Shiite militias.

ABU IBRAHAIN: (through translator) All of them left. Some have gone to Mosul, some to Karkook. Some went to Ramadi, and other places.

GARCIA: All places where Sunnis are in the majority. Iraqis stress that it never used to be like this. Neighborhoods in Baghdad were often mixed and there was tolerance. In any case, divisions or resentments were not allowed to surface under the iron fist of Saddam. But now enclaves are popping up, reflecting the wider divisions in a country where whole regions belong to one group or another. And those who try to bring people together instead of driving them apart are also facing the same grim fate. At his funeral, people drink tea and tell the story of Shahk Mechti(ph). Lourey Muslim Jawad(ph) was his nephew.

LOUREY MUSLIM JAWAD: (through translator) On the morning of the 15th of January, one of my friends called me to say that the Shahk had been assassinated. At first we didn't believe it but we went to the place where he was murdered. We saw him lying there, dead. He was shot. He had 15 bullets in his head, back and everywhere in his body. 15 bullets.

GARCIA: Shahk Mechti was the Iman of a Shiite mosque. According to his family and friends, he was a man who was fighting against sectarian violence.

MUSLIM JAWAD: (through translator) He always said, I have given my life for the Shiite-Sunni existence. I want there to be unity. Don't fall in the trap of the aggressors. Those were his words.

GARCIA: His cousin Heider Sali-Hadi(ph) says the Shahk was rare and that he would not only preach tolerance but practice it.

HEIDER SALI: (through translator) He used to take the men from the Shiite mosque to the Sunni mosque so that they would all pray together.

GARCIA: But Hadi feels that things in Iraq are going from bad to worse.

HADI: (through translator) All this will create malice and sectarian trouble. These killings will certainly lead the country to destruction.

GARCIA: But do all these killings mean a civil war has already begun in Iraq? According to civil war expert, Dr. Clive Jones from Leeds University, Iraq does not yet meet the academic criteria of a civil war.

CLIVE JONES: Well in essence, I think that the government itself would just have to collapse into fragmented to its various ethnic or religious communities so that there would be no central state authority. I mean there is a central state authority at the moment, it is heavily dependent, as we know, upon coalition support. Take that away and if the actual central structures then collapse, then I think you could quite accurately describe violence in Iraq as being of a civil war time.

GARCIA: The first permanent government in Iraq since the U.S. invasion is about to be formed. The idea the Americans are pushing is a unity government that includes all the major players, Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. The hope is that it will deflate the Sunni-led insurgency and the Shiite militia backlash. Many Iraqis insist civil war will never happen here because so many families are intermarried and people's relationships are too close. Ali Muneen, who was helping to build a Shiite mosque is married to a Sunni woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUNEEN)

GARCIA: Muneen says that even now he feels no anger towards the Sunnis, but he adds that people are being forced to take sides and he says that whole communities are being torn apart. Muneen's not sure if he'll ever be able to complete the Shiite mosque. It now lies abandoned. Some here wonder if hopes of unity and tolerance will suffer the same fate. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News Baghdad.

BLOCK: NPR Baghdad staff members Saad al-Dujeli(ph) and Farah al-Kasab(ph) contributed to this report.

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