The Past Complicates Iraq's Efforts To Move On Iraqi leaders are calling for reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites, and U.S. forces are trying to help. While some in Iraq may want to live together, many say they are unwilling and unable to forget the bloody past.
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The Past Complicates Iraq's Efforts To Move On

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The Past Complicates Iraq's Efforts To Move On


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been calling on his countrymen to forget the violence of the past and move towards reconciliation.

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Through translator) Today we have to reconcile. We need to put away our bad history and not allow ourselves to even remember it, let alone go back to it.

MONTAGNE: Violence in Iraq had diminished dramatically; that has not lessened the unease in many parts of the country, including the capital, Baghdad. Neighborhoods are still segregated by religious sect, and many Sunnis, who once dominated the city, now feel surrounded and threatened. As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, while some in Iraq may want to move on, many say they're unwilling and unable to forget the past.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Baghdad these days is a city riven by two opposite emotions. There is hope.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just next to the square where six years ago U.S. Marines pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein, marking the fall of Baghdad, today blast walls are being dismantled, opening up roads that have been closed off for years. Khalid Khanjar is the manager of the nearby Palestine Hotel.

Mr. KHALID KHANJAR (Hotel Manager): Slowly, slowly, we will remove (unintelligible)…

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And who decides this? The government or this you?

Mr. KHANJAR: It is our opinion. But we take government permission and they support it. And we go for it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You really do feel safe now? You feel safe…

Mr. KHANJAR: We feel safe, of course.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's changed? Why?

Mr. KHANJAR: A lot of change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think the walls to be taken down everywhere?

Mr. KHANJAR: Of course.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But in many parts of the capital they have not been. This is a city that remains divided, and recent statistics show that the predominant feeling after six years of brutal war here is fear.

Ms. KRISTELE YOUNES (Refugees International): For the moment, returns don't seem to be happening on a very large scale.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kristele Younes is a senior advocate for Washington-based Refugees International. She says only 300,000 people out of an estimated four and a half million who were displaced by the violence have returned to their homes in Iraq.

In Baghdad in particular, Younes says people prefer to reside in areas where they are surrounded by members of their own sect. She says that's because in many cases it still isn't safe for people to go back to the areas that they were driven out of.

Ms. KRISTELE YOUNES (Refugees International): A lot of people have been intimidated. Some of them have been killed. Their houses have been blown up. It seems that the communities are not necessarily ready yet to welcome large-scale returns, especially large-scale returns from other sects than the main ones in their neighborhoods.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, Younes says, that the sectarian makeup of Baghdad is now very different from it was before the U.S.-led invasion. Then there was a large Sunni population. But the sectarian violence caused many of them to flee the country. Today Baghdad is a predominantly Shiite city.

Ms. YOUNES: The refugee population that is outside Iraq, it is overwhelming the Sunni. The majority of refugees are Sunnis.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A long line of cars wait to enter the West Baghdad neighborhood of Ameriyah, one of the few areas of the capital that remains predominantly Sunni. Iraqi army officers check every vehicle that enters here; IDs are scrutinized. While most Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad allow traffic and people to enter freely, Sunni neighborhoods are encircled by walls and guarded by men with guns.

Mr. ABU MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sunni Abu Mohammed talks about how he was displaced from his neighborhood of Hurriyah.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) We lived in Hurriyah for 60 years, from my grandfather's days. He built our house there. Everyone lived there - my uncles, my whole family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many Sunnis fled abroad to Syria and Jordan, where they make up the bulk of the refugee population. Others like Abu Mohammed went to nearby Sunni enclaves. He wants to go back to Hurriyah, but even though the Shiite militiamen no longer control the neighborhood, he says it's just not safe.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) Some of the Sunnis who tried to move back have been killed or have been threatened, or had their houses burned.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) Why have they not allowed their neighbors to come back? Did we hurt them? Who's been killed there? Who's been displaced? It's the Sunnis. It's proof that we did nothing wrong.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says before the U.S.-led invasion, Hurriyah was a mixed neighborhood, where Sunnis and Shiites lived in peace.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) We miss our life together, we miss sharing food together, the joint wedding parties. We shared our happiness and sadness together. We have all lost.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But even though he misses the past, he believes reconciliation will never happen.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) What happened will be difficult to forget. Whole families were killed. Their relatives will not forget. This will affect our future.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm standing in the now almost completely Shiite neighborhood of Hurriyah in West Baghdad. In front of me is an abandoned Sunni mosque, one of about a dozen defunct Sunni mosques in this neighborhood. The one in front of me was bombed at the beginning of the sectarian violence. It seems forlorn somehow, a perverse monument to the sectarian cleansing that's taken place here.

Captain NATHAN WILLIAMS (U.S. Army): The meeting was - went very well. He's very interested in seeing a lot of the Sunni mosques in Hurriyah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Hurriyah, U.S. soldiers are at the center of efforts to help Sunni families return. Company Commander Captain Nathan Williams talks to the local Iraqi Army commander here about trying to reopen some of the closed mosques.

U.S. soldiers visit every Sunni who returns, but only around 600 displaced Sunni families have come back out of the estimated 4,000 that fled, and some people in Hurriyah prefer it that way.

A group of men shoveled diamond-shaped loaves of flat bread into a brick oven. Above them, pasted on the wall, are Shiite religious posters. Twenty-two-year-old Dhai Badran says he likes the neighborhood the way it is now.

Mr. DHAI BADRAN: (Through translator) It's better if it stays completely Shiite. Most of the troubles here were caused by the Sunnis. It's better to have the Sunnis out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Forty-one-year-old Yasin Abdul Rasool Ridha says that the sectarian violence drove a wedge between people here.

Mr. YASIN ABDUL RASOOL RIDHA (Shiite): (Through translator) I started to feel uncomfortable with Sunnis. The militias used to question us if they saw us with a Sunni. It put us in danger, so even if I was their friend, I stopped talking to them, just to be safe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says that the mutual suspicion still lingers. He doubts whether all the Sunnis will be able to come back.

U.S. military officials hoped that a reduction in violence would allow reconciliation to take place in Iraq, but so far, while there has been relative calm in many parts of the country, it seems that the divisions that were created during the civil war are becoming entrenched. And many Iraqis say they do not trust the Iraqi security forces or the central government to keep them safe. And they expect more trouble to come.

(Soundbite of chanting)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's early morning at Baghdad's central morgue. Four men carry out a wooden coffin chanting there is no god but God, as they walk out with the remains of their relative.

Violence in Iraq increased again recently. Adel Hassan Khalaf has been to the morgue three times in two weeks. Four of his relatives were killed in a Baghdad bombing in the Shiite district of Khadimiya. Today he's here to pick up the body of his brother-in-law, who was killed in another bombing in Diyala Province.

Mr. ADEL HASSAN KHALAF (Shiite): (Through translator) I don't know what to tell you. I expect things to get worse again. The country is done for. It is done for. Hope is weak in Iraq.

(Soundbite of chatter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nearby, while they are waiting for the dead to be brought out, a group of men chat with one another. One man says our neighbor, a child, they kidnapped him and they killed him. You will see him now when they bring him out.

Another man replies, it's back, the bad days are back again.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, says a third man. We were fine for a few months, but the troubles are back again.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

MONTAGNE: And a reminder of the violence is still racking Iraq. Today a suicide bomber dressed in a police uniform struck at a military checkpoint near Baqouba; that's a city about 35 miles outside of Baghdad. A U.S. military delegation was visiting the mayor of that city. At least eight American soldiers were injured in that attack.

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