Violence Forces Iraqis to Seek New Homes

With the sectarian cleansing of many Baghdad neighborhoods, Iraqi real estate agents have a whole new job. They are trying to find housing that is as safe as conditions allow, for both Sunnis and Shiites. In neighborhoods where the two groups once lived peacefully, side-by-side, violence is forcing people to move.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

There has been no let up in the sectarian violence plaguing Iraq. Yesterday, the brother of the country's Sunni Arab vice president was gunned down in his Baghdad home. Today Iraqi police reported that 60 bodies have been discovered across the capital in the past 24 hours. In just about any neighborhood in Baghdad these days, people are on the move. The city grows increasingly divided along the Tigris River, between the largely Shiite east and the mostly Sunni west.

NPR's Anne Garrels reports.

ANNE GARRELS: Tagrid Mohammed(ph) is doing her best to make a new home for her family in two squalid rooms. The toilet is in the corner of what passes for a bedroom-come-living room. This is all this middle class family can afford now. Two weeks ago, a guard from the local Sunni mosque told all the Shiites in her neighborhood they had less than 24 hours to get out. Gathering up the bare essentials, Tagrid and her family locked the doors of their house and fled to safer ground.

Ms. TAGRID MOHAMMED (Shiite Resident, Baghdad, Iraq): (Through translator) This a predominately Shiite neighborhood and the Mahdi Army is controlling it. We know we're safe because of them.

GARRELS: The Mahdi Army is the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. While its presence reassures Tagrid, in other areas it inspires terror. This weekend in the mixed neighborhood of Huriyah, Sadr militiamen forced eight Sunni families to leave. The Shiite in-law of one of the families begged the Sadr bureau to relent. He was told it was his mistake to have married into a Sunni family. One Sunni was killed as he loaded his furniture into a van. A Sadr representative, Abu Mustaba(ph), was reached by phone. He had this explanation for the events.

Mr. ABU MUSTABA (Representative, Mahdi Army): (Through translator) These families have been tracked for a long time. We know that they have terrorists staying in their houses. They aren't doing anything, but they are there. We told the families you should not have these kind of people in their house. They didn't listen.

GARRELS: But Abu Mustaba said militiamen went beyond orders when they killed one of the Sunnis.

Mr. MUSTABA: (Through translator) The Mahdi militiamen are not allowed to hurt the family of the terrorist. Only the terrorist is a target, not his family.

GARRELS: He acknowledged Sadr is unable to control all his militiamen.

Mr. MUSTABA: (Through translator) This is a problem. These people are acting out of passion. We try to control them, but it's not like physics or mathematics. The militiamen see bad things happen and then do bad things themselves.

GARRELS: Huriyah has seen a constant round of tit for tat killings. Real estate agents there and around the city are now busy accommodating people who have to move, arranging swaps, rentals. It's a delicate business now. Agent Ahmed Mahmoud(ph) says he first needs to know if his client is Sunni or Shiite to ensure he doesn't sell them a house in the wrong neighborhood.

Mr. AHMED MAHMOUD (Real Estate Agent, Iraq): (Through translator) If I get a house for a Sunni in a certain neighborhood, the Shiite militia will come after me and the family. I am embarrassed to have to ask what sect a family is from, but I have to.

GARRELS: A lot of houses are on the market as Iraqis try to sell up and leave the country. Prices are down.

Ahmed, a Sunni who lived in a Shiite neighborhood, sold his house for half what he might have gotten just a few months ago.

Mr. MAHMOUD: (Through translator) Selling it for half value is better than giving it away for nothing. Our neighbor has four houses. He left, and now Shiites in the area have taken over the houses for free.

GARRELS: Eight Sunnis on his street alone were rounded up and murdered. He didn't receive a personal threat. He didn't need one to know it was time to get out. He says his Shiite neighbors, the friends he grew up with, helped him move. Sad to see him go, but powerless to protect him.

Mr. MAHMOUD: (Through translator) I'm not afraid of my Shiite friends or neighbors. I'm afraid of the Shiite strangers, people who come from outside the neighborhood.

GARRELS: Ali, a Shiite policeman, says everyone is wary of strangers now, fearing they could be terrorists, death squads or just plain criminals.

ALI (Shiite Resident, Baghdad, Iraq): (Through translator) It's now very strange for a Sunni to come to a Shiite area, and vice-a-versa. If a Sunni comes to our neighborhood, people are very suspicious; he could well be killed.

GARRELS: There is no accurate count of people who are moving. The Migration Ministry says more than a quarter of a million Iraqis who have moved because of sectarian cleansing have applied for aid. But many more like Tagrid Mohammed have moved on their own.

(Soundbite of dishes, silverware being washed)

GARRELS: She washes dishes in a tiny room that bears no resemblance to the cozy kitchen she just left behind. She would love to join the growing numbers fleeing Iraq altogether, but that's only for the well heeled and well connected. Her move just across town has exhausted the family's reserves. She certainly can't afford to set up from scratch in a new country.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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