Mixed Baghdad Neighborhoods Become Enclaves

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Baghdad's neighborhoods are changing. Four years after the American invasion, sectarian tensions have turned formerly mixed neighborhoods into exclusively Sunni or Shiite enclaves. U.S. forces are trying to reverse the process.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The other anniversary comes in Iraq. Here's how NPR's Anne Garrels described Baghdad on this day in 2003.

(Soundbite of archived report)

ANNE GARRELS: Suddenly, you know, the blanket of security in town, I mean, that we've, you know, Iraqis have only known all their lives just disappeared. They weren't police, they were - I mean, you couldn't find troops except in some pockets, but for the most part. I mean, I tripped on a cash of surface-to-air missiles that were just left unmanned. It was - they'd gone. And then the looting began, and you heard about that. I mean people - something just snapped.

INSKEEP: Four years after Baghdad fell, U.S. troops are still trying to secure a chaotic city. Sunni and Shia Muslims are killing each other now, and in many areas the latest security plan may be too late. It's a sign of tension in the capital that all the people interviewed for this next story asked that we not broadcast their full names.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on the changing map of Iraq's capital city.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Saad(ph) is one of the last Shiites in the Baghdad neighborhood of Saydiyah. From the house he's owned for the last 30 years, he can hear children playing in the school that abuts his backyard.

(Soundbite of children playing)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But for him, it's not a happy sound. More than once, he says, his son has come back from school, bruised and beaten.

SAAD (Iraqi Shiite, Saydiyah Neighborhood): (Through translator) If we were living in different conditions I would know how to respond to protect my son.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But he can't. He's surrounded by members of the opposite sect and he says he's afraid - with reason.

SAAD: (Through translator) The other day, the kids were fighting again, and I saw one Sunni father encouraging his son to keep hitting my son. And he told him to call my son sectarian names. In the past when there used to be trouble, you could solve everything. But now, any trouble turns into the sectarian turmoil. So when a Sunni curses my small son, I don't reply out of fear. I am not willing to jeopardize my stay at my house.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Saad has seen what happened to the other Shiites in the neighborhood.

SAAD: (Through translator) For Shiites, things are very difficult. You find threats written on the walls. There are killings. And everyday, we find a dead man that we discovered was a Shiite. The majority of those who are killed are Shiites.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Five of his cousins have been killed already, and many families have fled. Saad says it's hard to hang on. The thuggish sectarianism of the gunmen has infected people that he's known for years. No one can risk trusting anyone anymore. He tells of an old Sunni woman who sits at the entrance of the street watching everything that goes on. The Shiites have nicknamed her - the checkpoint.

SAAD: (Through translator) We all fear her. She attacks the Shiites openly. Whenever a Shiite passes by, she starts to curse on him and he can't reply. She accuses Shiite religious leaders of being bad. She tries to degrade them in front of us all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They are small humiliations, and Saad says none of the Shiites challenge her. They simply, quietly endure. Others though have been forced to take sides.

(Soundbite of traffic)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The west Baghdad district of Ghazaliyah is the starkest example of what's happened in the capital. It has split. One half is exclusively Shiite, and the other is Sunni. Dividing the two is a kind of green line of empty houses. Waleed(ph) is a Sunni who is one of the last of his sect to live in what became the Shiite quarter, now controlled by the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr.

WALEED (Iraqi Sunni, Ghazaliyah District): (Through translator) I didn't imagine that the Mahdi Army would expand so quickly, but they came to control the police station and some city blocks, and all of the sudden, we began to hear that the Sunni block up the street was receiving threats, and that many were fleeing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Then, says Waleed, the Sunni teachers were forced to leave the district schools in November 2006.

WALEED: (Through translator) They had written on the wall of the schools, knowledge is not for Sunnis. Only one Sunni teacher stayed to teach. Then one day, they finally took her. The female teachers physically pushed her out with the Mahdi Army. They tore up her clothes and then they hanged her in the buffer zone between us. That was in December.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Waleed removed his children form school. Then, his Shiite wife was told she could not get her food rations unless she divorced him. He tried to make himself invisible; he rarely left his home. He didn't work - to no avail. They came for him and the three other families. They were the very last Sunnis left.

WALEED: (Through translator) The Mahdi Army came at 7:30 at night. It was winter. They knocked on the door and my 15-year-old son went out to them. I saw them grabbing him. He was shouting. They hit him with a gun and broke his tooth. They told me, it's either your son or the house. I told them they can take the house.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They fled that instant with their clothes on their backs. That night, they slept in their car, driving it up the road. The next day, they moved into the Sunni quarter, and there they've stayed.

Baghdad's changing landscape has also caused problems for American soldiers.

Unidentified Man #1: Go, friend.

(Soundbite of door forced opened)

Unidentified Man #2: Whoa.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's afternoon and the men from Baker Company with the 2nd Division 12th Infantry break down a door in a neighborhood in the southern area of Dura. They're looking for information about who's been placing roadside bombs targeting U.S. troops in the neighborhood.

Unidentified Man #3: We saw this house was abandoned. And tried to pick the right house.

Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #3: Sorry about that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A soldier apologizes to the family that's inside while others search for suspicious items.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The woman seemed terrified, repeating over and over that they are displaced families, and that they know nothing. The son seems defiant.

Unidentified Man #5: They forced us to leave.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sunnis?

Unidentified Man #5: Yes, I'm Sunni. We don't do anything to them. They hate us and forced us to leave.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Everyone that the soldiers question obviously tell the same story, they're all displaced Sunnis. They have the wary faces of the hounded. For these soldiers, here at least, it seems a fruitless search for intelligence. No one seems to know anything about this neighborhood, or even about this city. Baghdad has been shifting under everyone's feet.

Mr. MOHAMMED AL-NAIMI (Spokesman, Ministry of Displacement and Migration): (Speaking in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In his office in the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, Mohammed al-Naimi reads off the displacement figures of each Iraqi province. He says, in Baghdad at least, the new security plan has for now slowed the trend.

Mr. AL-NAIMI: (Through translator) Our assessment is, that taking into consideration that the security plan is still in its initial stages, it has had good success. It has decreased the number of the displaced and this is a key point.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But according to a new report by the International Displacement Monitoring Center of the Norwegian Refugee Council, over 700,000 people are displaced within Iraq, due to sectarian violence.

Al-Naimi puts the figure at only 100,000, telling NPR that the problem has been exaggerated by, quote, "ill-intentioned media." The Baghdad government, meanwhile, is trying to get people to move back into areas that they fled. But there is so much anger; there's been so much death. Even if it becomes safer, it's not clear what's been broken can be put back together again.

Back in Ghazaliyah, Waleed says he cannot forgive or forget.

WALEED: (Through translator) How can I forget? Shall I forget the moment when my son was beaten right in front of me? Or the moment that my daughter almost died during that night we spent in the car?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's still furious when he thinks about how his Shiite neighbor, a doctor of good standing, whom he'd known for 16 years, took possession of his house. As he was leaving, saying he was going to give it as a gift to his son. Waleed now says he will leave Iraq. This is no longer his country, he says bitterly, and its people no longer his countrymen.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

INSKEEP: Baghdad fell to U.S. forces four years ago today.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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