Iraqi Violence Centers Around Baghdad

In Iraq, British and Australian troops handed over security duties to Iraqis in a relatively peaceful southern province in that country. However, sectarian violence continues in other parts of Iraq — particularly near Baghdad.

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In Baghdad, the sectarian violence continues as the new Iraqi government argues about who's to blame. Shia death squads are making nightly forays into Sunni neighborhoods, and Sunni's are staging retaliatory attacks on Shiites in the streets.

As NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports, the violence is forcing an increasing number of Baghdad residents to flee the capital.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Two nights ago, Ali Hamdani's(ph) neighbor warned him to get inside his house, in the Sunni neighborhood of Jihad, as quickly as possible and stick his family in one room. There were Shiite militiamen around the corner.

Mr. ALI HAMDANI: This is the confusion that we're living in now, that you don't know who they are actually targeting and you don't know what to pretend to be, whether Shia or Sunni, because you don't know who's attacking you.

TARABAY: So he and his brother-in-law grabbed their guns and waited. The women and two young children huddled in one room. They agreed that if the militia coming to their door was Shiite, he would answer since his name is overtly Shiite, while his Sunni brother in law would go outside if it was Sunni gunmen.

Mr. HAMDANI: It's a very strange feeling. You don't feel yourself scared, but you feel like you desperate. You don't know what to do. You just wait for you fate, you know? And you don't know whether by the end of this night you'll end up one of these dead bodies dumped near the rubbish dumps in the area, or you'll end up safe and nothing will happen to you or your family.

TARABAY: More than 40 people were killed in Jihad that day. Baghdad's central morgue has received at least 80 bodies each day for the past three days. The vast majority are victims of the escalating sectarian bloodshed.

Hamdani says he's now preparing to leave the country, and he's not the only one. Iraqi Airways has had to organize extra flights to accommodate the overwhelming demand. Flights to Damascus have increased from three a week to eight. And Iraqis who run fleets of suburban cars to Jordan say so many people have tried to book the service that prices have soared from $200 per trip to $750 in the past two weeks. The number of buses to Jordan has gone from two a day to as many as 40 or 50.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

TARABAY: In parliament today, politicians blamed each other for the violence. The majority Shiite alliance vehemently opposed Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie sitting in on their session. Zubaie, on Sunday, had lashed out at the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry and accused it of harboring militias charged with carrying out many of the killings. In the middle of the arguments, Hashmal Hassani(ph), a secular legislator, called for calm.

Mr. HASHMAL HASSANI (Iraqi Parliamentarian): (Through translator) We did not bring the ministers here to judge them, but there are real security problems that exist in the street. We should be part of the solution.

TARABAY: Defense Minister Abdel Qader al-Obeidi asked the session be closed to the public when he addressed the parliament to speak about his plans for resolving the current crisis. Afterwards, he spoke to media waiting outside and said extremists from both sides were behind the violence, not militias.

Mr. ABDEL QADER AL-OBEIDI: (Through translator) Accusing the militias is wrong. (Unintelligible) the militias, as many as they are, they're all accused of killings. Not one single Iraqi would stay alive in Baghdad.

TARABAY: Radical Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, claims his Mahdi army is not involved in any of the killings. But he admitted in a recent television interview that there may be rogue elements, individuals, carrying out reprisal attacks on their own.

(Soundbite of television broadcast)

Mr. MUQTADA AL-SADR (Shia Cleric): (Speaking foreign language)

TARABAY: Whoever they may be, men like Abu Almar(ph), the only name he would give, say he will defend his neighborhood against anyone who tries to take it over. He lives in the Sunni-dominated Hamriyah(ph). And he said, two days ago the Mahdi army came into the area and all the residents came out to fight them. Men and women. He says he knows why the militia came.

(Soundbite of television broadcast)

Mr. ABU ALMAR: (Through translator) I think they chose Hamriyah for one reason: they haven't been able to take over a single mosque in this area.

TARABAY: Abu Almar says everyone is still armed and ready, and that they expect another assault soon.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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