Neighbors Wait for a Chance to Co-Exist in Baghdad

In one Baghdad neighborhood, both Sunnis and Shia see the arrival of U.S. troops as their last chance to survive as a mixed community.

The streets of al-I'lam are now deserted. Where Sunnis and Shia, longtime friends, used to sit outside chatting or playing dominos, there is silence. It all began to change just a month ago, when a militia commander loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr moved into the area.

Saleem Amer, a translator for NPR, lives in the neighborhood. At first, the arrival of the Mahdi commander looked surprisingly promising. Abu Sajad reassured local Sunnis that there had been a change in Sadr policy. He told Sunnis he was there to protect everyone.

"He went to the Sunni families, knocked on their doors, passed his phone number. He told them, 'Anything happens while you guys (are) outside, you or your family members, if they ... get captured, call this. This is my personal cell phone number, and I will get them out."

Saleem is a Shiite. His best friend Sabah Mohammed, a Sunni, got confirmation that Sunnis would not be attacked.

"We spoke to the Mahdi Army leader. He told us no Sunnis will be forced from the area anymore, and you should feel safe," Sabah Mohammed said through a translator.

Saleem said the Sunnis came back home "and they came on the street and start telling the story, and they've been so happy that nothing happened."

The relief was short-lived — and the promise empty. Two weeks ago, the Mahdi commander was assassinated and militiamen came to the neighborhood to exact revenge. For the first time, a roadside bomb blew up here, right outside Saleem's house. It killed four people. The tight-knit community was in shock.

"I lost my mind, personally," Saleem said. "And it was not just me, it was everybody in the neighborhood."

Then three cars arrived with young thugs dressed in black warning the Sunnis to leave by dawn.

According to Saleem, the men in black said, "The ones who will stay, we will blow off their heads."

The police standing nearby did nothing.

As Saleem watched from his upstairs window, he saw the men beat a 15-year-old boy.

"Later we found the kid dead behind the bakery, like 20 or 30 bullets...," Saleem said. "He was just a kid, you know, just a poor family, they have a small mini-market."

Now gunshots are heard every night.

"It's weird, a little bit, to me, you know, because I am a Shia, and I'm telling you a story against the Mahdi's militia," Saleem said. "Everybody thought they will protect us, but they are just protecting their gains."

The militia has attacked five Sunni families.

One afternoon, after Sabah had done what he could to help his fellow Sunnis, he came to check on Saleem. The cars appeared again.

"They shot him," Saleem said. "Three bullets: one in his head, one in the neck, and one in the chest. He died. Innocently."

Saleem, struggling to hold back his tears, says he could do nothing to help his friend.

"The guy get killed in front of us. And none of us can do anything. We (have) just been sitting and watching what was happening. They just wanted to pass a message to everybody: that we can do whatever we want; Sunnis should leave; and the Shia should obey. We can kill anybody."

Attacks on the Sunni families still living in the neighborhood have continued; three women and two children have been killed. Saleem says Shiite families are doing what the can to provide for those hiding in their houses.

"Food gets passed to them through my mother and through other old women in the neighborhood that they go outside and buy stuff (for) them, you know, vegetables, food. But secretly, you know. We don't want anybody to know because we are afraid (of) what's going to happen."

While the militiamen are forcing Sunnis out, they are threatening any Shiite who tries to leave, warning: Stay put — or else. Everyone here suddenly is living in terror. For them, the new security plan is a matter of life and death.

"We want the security plan to start today or tomorrow," Saleem said.

People want the American troops to blanket their neighborhoods as they have promised — and they want them to do it quickly.

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