Shiite Militants Try to Drive Sunnis from Baghdad

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Every day dozens of bodies turn up at the Baghdad morgue. They are bound, mutilated by torture and shot. Lately, though, sectarian violence has taken on a broader, more systematic form. Some say it is a strategy by militant Shiite groups to drive Sunni Arabs out of the Iraqi capital.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now if more forces ahead for Iraq, here is the kind of violence they will face.

Every day, dozens of bodies turn up with the Baghdad morgue. They've been bound, they've been mutilated and they've been shot. And lately, the sectarian violence has taken on a broader and more systematic form. Some say it's a strategy by militant Shiite groups to drive Sunni Arabs out of the capital.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Baghdad.

COREY FLINTOFF: A color-coded map of Baghdad has been circulating on the Internet, showing the sectarian makeup of various neighborhoods. Shiite majority areas are shown in green, Sunni majority areas in yellow, and mixed neighborhoods in brown. The colors on that map are constantly changing to show where militias have been active and residents of one sect or another have been forced to abandon their home.

Dr. EMIL AL-KHADI(ph) (Parliament Member): (Through translator) Areas have become purely Shiite after throwing out the Sunnis. And other areas have become Sunni after throwing all the Shiites out.

FLINTOFF: Emil al-Khadi is a medical doctor, a member of parliament, and a Sunni.

Dr. AL-KHADI: But the truth is that who suffered most from this are the Sunnis. They've been thrown out of more areas than the Shiites in Baghdad.

FLINTOFF: Shiites tell the story differently. This is Omar Hamid al-Tayih(ph), a former army officer who's now unemployed.

Mr. OMAR HAMID AL-TAYIH (Former Iraqi Army Officer): (Through translator) Shiites were getting kidnapped, tortured, slaughtered and forced to leave their homes, so the Mahdi Army intervened. They are a group of the Iraqi people who protect the Iraqis from the takfiriyin, and they manage to control my neighborhood.

FLINTOFF: The Mahdi Army is the large Shiite militia that's loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Takfiriyin is what Shiites call Sunni militia members, literally, excommunicators who regard Shiites as infidels deserving of death.

Al-Tayih and many other Shiites tell this story, which is unconfirmed, as justification for expelling Sunnis.

Mr. AL-TAYIH: (Through Translator) After they purified the Dola'ai(ph) neighborhood, the Mahdi Army entered a Sunni mosque called al-Mukhminin(ph), and they found torture stuff there - ropes, slaughter tools, things like that.

FLINTOFF: People from the two sides don't agree on who started it, but they do agree on how the forced expulsions are carried out. Again, Sunni lawmaker Emil al-Khadi.

Dr. AL-KHADI: (Through translator) First, they'll throw notes at the house, accusing the family of being terrorists and things like that. The threats say they should get out or they'll be kidnapped or killed. If one family gets out, the rest are afraid and so they all leave the area.

FLINTOFF: Both sides also tell stories of members of a different sect coming to the aid of their neighbors. Khadi tells other Sunni family that fought off militia attackers for an hour until they ran out of ammunition. She says they then took refuge with Shiite neighbors who refused to hand them over to the gunmen.

Mohammad Jazim(ph) is a Shiite from the Dola'ai neighborhood, which has seen the expulsion of most of its Sunni families. He says Shiite families are protecting the houses of departed Sunni friends.

Mr. MOHAMMAD JAZIM (Resident, Dola'ai Neighborhood): (Through translator) But let me tell you about my street. There was strong friendship between the neighbors, so they rented the Sunni houses to prevent them from being stolen or confiscated by the Mahdi Army.

FLINTOFF: The process of forced expulsion has escalated in some neighborhoods with bigger groups of militia fighters skirmishing in the streets. That kind of fighting broke out a little over a week ago in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Haria(ph). The neighborhood is mixed, but dozens of Sunni families have been forced out in recent weeks.

Ten days ago, Mahdi Army militia fighters stormed into what local people say was the last cluster of Sunni homes in the area. Sunni gunmen battled the invaders for about five hours. But in the end, around 100 Sunni families formed a convoy, then moved out of the area under cover of darkness.

Mr. ASHRAF AL-KHALIDI (Co-Author of Report on Sectarian Violence): This is about Shia militias called Mahdi Army against Sunni armed men, or insurgents, or whatever you call them. The prime victims of this war of course are the people.

FLINTOFF: Ashraf al-Khalidi is the co-author of a report on sectarian violence prepared for the Brookings Institution. He insists that the conflict is not really a social or sectarian struggle but a fight for power engineered by politicians who are using the sectarian divide for their own ends.

Mr. AL-KHALIDI: The problem with us now, we don't have political leaders with enough, let's say, popularity within their communities. The only thing that empowers them is the sectarian issue. They won't stop. They just won't stop. They want it all.

FLINTOFF: Khalidi says he thinks people of both sects would accept a political solution, but that unlike the powerful Shiite coalition, the Sunnis don't have a unified political group that can negotiate in their name.

If the two sides can't reach a political settlement, the results could be dire. During a visit to Washington last week, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, warned that, like Somalia, his country could be wrenched into polarized enclaves.

Mr. TARIQ AL-HASHEMI (Vice-President, Iraq): We would have at least two extremist anti-American ministers in Iraq, one aligned with Iran in the south and another like Taliban in the center. Both ministers will cause chaos and (unintelligible) in the neighboring states.

FLINTOFF: Ashraf al-Khalidi says the neighboring states and the United States have already created hell in Iraq with what he calls their meddling. Far from engaging Iran and Syria, as the Iraq Study Group recommends, Khalidi has one message for Iraq's neighbors.

Mr. AL-KHALIDI: Stay away from Iraq. All the interference in Iraq is negative and these countries are just pushing their political influence in Iraq. It's an open war between the United States and Iran on Iraqi ground. And most of what's happening now is part of that war.

FLINTOFF: Khalidi says that most of the sectarian problems started when the U.S. began to hand security responsibilities over to Iraq's Shiite-dominated government. Although he's a Shiite himself, Khalidi says Shiite control of security was bound to be seen as unfair by the Sunnis.

Sunni lawmaker Emil al-Khadi says the United States is ultimately responsible for the chaos in Iraq and is honor-bound to fix it.

Dr. AL-KHADI: (Through translator) The point we have reached is because of the Americans and the occupation. So they have to find a solution for us. They have to put pressure on the Iraqi government, real pressure to disband the militias.

FLINTOFF: Khadi says she's sick of discussions and promises and wants action. In her words: What we hear is good, but what we see is dreadful.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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