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Shiites Remake Baghdad in Their Image – New York Times December 22, 2006

Posted by Dan in Middle East, News, Politics.
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From the New York Times:

BAGHDAD, Dec. 22 — As the United States debates what to do in Iraq, this country’s Shiite majority has been moving toward its own solution: making the capital its own.

Largeportions of Baghdad have become Shiite in recent months, as militiaspress their fight against Sunni militants deeper into the heart of thecapital, displacing thousands of Sunni residents. At least 10neighborhoods that a year ago were mixed Sunni and Shiite are nowalmost entirely Shiite, according to residents, American and Iraqimilitary commanders and local officials.

For the first years ofthe war, Sunni militants were dominant, forcing Shiites out ofneighborhoods and systematically killing bakers, barbers and trashcollectors, who were often Shiites. But starting in February, after thebombing of a shrine in the city of Samarra, Shiite militias began tostrike back, pushing west from their strongholds and redrawing thesectarian map of the capital, home to a quarter of Iraq’s population.

TheShiite-dominated government publicly condemns violence against Sunnisand says it is trying to stop the militias that carry it out. But theattacks have continued unabated, and Sunnis have grown suspicious.

Plansfor a new bridge that would bypass a violent Sunni area in the east,and a proposal for land handouts in towns around Baghdad that wouldbring Shiites into what are now Sunni strongholds underscored theseconcerns.

Sunni political control in Baghdad is all butnonexistent: Of the 51 members of the Baghdad Provincial Council, whichruns the city’s services, just one is Sunni.

In many ways, thechanges are a natural development. Shiites, a majority of Iraq’spopulation, were locked out of the ruling elite under Saddam Hussein and now have power that matches their numbers.

Thedanger, voiced by Sunni Arabs, is that an emboldened militant fringewill conduct broader killings without being stopped by the government,or, some fear, with its help. That could, in turn, draw Sunni countriesinto the fight and lead to a protracted regional war, precisely theoutcome that Americans most fear.

“They say they’re againstthis, but on the ground they do nothing,” said Mahmoud al-Mashhadani,the speaker of Parliament, a Sunni. He moved his family to thebetter-protected Green Zone in October.

The debate reaches tothe heart of the American enterprise here. While President Bush isconsidering more troops, some in the Shiite-dominated government saythe Americans should stay out of the sectarian fight in Baghdad and letthe battle run its course. Getting involved would simply prolong thefight, they say.

At an army base in northern Baghdad, an Iraqigeneral moved his hand across a map of the capital. The city isdividing fast, he said, writing, “Sunni” and “Shiite” in gracefulArabic script across each neighborhood.

“Now we face a new style of splitting the neighborhoods,” said the general, a Shiite. “The politicians are doing this.”

Neighborhoods in the east — most vulnerable to Shiite militias fromSadr City, the largest eastern district and one of its poorest — havelost much of their minority Sunni populations since February. Even thesolidly middle-class neighborhoods of Zayuna and Ghadier, very mixed aslittle as six months ago, are starting to lose Sunnis.

In Baladiyad, a once-mixed area of eastern Baghdad, workers smoothed mortar onto brick. A Shiite mosque was taking shape.

Onthe same block, a half-finished Sunni mosque stood deserted, its facadehung with peeling posters of last year’s leaders. Less than a mileaway, another mosque has never been used.

“They can’t come here now,” a Shiite worker said. “They are Sunni.”

Furthersouth, in the neighborhood of Naariya, a Shiite refugee family sat in adarkened living room in a house they recently occupied.

The house belonged to a Sunni family, but they had fled after a spate of killings, and the local office of Moktada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric, had arranged for Shiites to move in.

Thenew family’s scant belongings hung on the wall: a portrait of thefather, now dead, and a broken revolver. Somebody else’s clock chimed.Mattresses and couches of the previous owners packed the room.

“Theytold us it’s safe here, it’s a Shiite neighborhood,” said Mustafa, oneof the sons. “The Mahdi Army is protecting the area,” he said,referring to Mr. Sadr’s militia. Family members declined to give theirname for safety reasons.

The family has no sympathy for the Sunnis. They fled Baquba, arelentlessly violent town north of Baghdad, after Sunni militantskilled their father, a man in his 70’s; kidnapped a brother; and shotanother brother dead.

Around 400 Shiite familieshave fled from Baquba to Naariya and a nearby neighborhood, BaghdadJedidah, over the past few months, said Mustafa, citing local officialsin Mr. Sadr’s office.

“We are a ship that sank under the ocean,” said his mother, Aziza, 46.

Besides,Mustafa said, Shiite militias pursue only Sunnis with suspiciousaffiliations. The Sunni militias, on the other hand, “are killinganyone who is Shiite,” Aziza said. (A relative in a separateconversation said one of Aziza’s sons had killed more than 10 Sunnissince coming to Baghdad this fall. The family denied any involvement inmilitias.)

Aziza added, “My husband was an ordinary man.”

But a divided Iraq can destroy ordinary people.

ASunni man named Bassim, his Shiite wife and their three small childrensaid Shiite militiamen forced them to leave their home in Huriya, westof the Tigris, one chilly afternoon this month. Bassim left two jobs asa butcher and a hospital cleaner because they were in very Shiiteneighborhoods.

“My husband is a Sunni, but he has nothing to dowith insurgents,” said his wife, Zahra Kareem Alwan, holding hersobbing daughter on her hip in a school in Adel, a Sunni neighborhoodin western Baghdad where families took temporary refuge. Boxes of waterwere stacked in a corner.

Last week, the family was moved to an empty house farther west. They did not know the owner.

Shiiteleaders argue that the Iraqi Army would not allow massacres. They sayAmericans will be embedded with units as a safety check.

InHuriya, it was an Iraqi Army unit that helped Ms. Alwan and otherfamilies into trucks and brought them to Adel. An American coloneladvising the Iraqi Army unit that controls the area said that Shiitesoccupied the houses within 48 hours. Americans counted about 180families who had fled. The Iraqi general said it was 50.

Shiite political leaders were skeptical.

“Theseare lies,” said Hadi al-Amiri, head of the security committee inParliament and of the Badr Organization, the armed wing of one ofIraq’s most powerful Shiite parties.

“It’s merely propaganda to create fears among Arabs,” he added, a reference to Sunni Arab countries.

The main problem, Mr. Amiri said, was Sunni insurgents and their suicide bombs.

“Theywant to go back to the old equation, when they were the officers andthe Shia were just soldiers and slaves,” Mr. Amiri said, with anintensity that spoke of deep scars inflicted by the past government,referring to the loyalists to Saddam Hussein. “This will never happenagain. They should believe in the new equation.”

Using theunlikely analogy of Mr. Hussein draining the marshes in southern Iraqto destroy the marsh Arabs, Mr. Amiri talked about ways that Baghdadcould be encircled to choke off the supply lines of Sunni militants,for instance, by fortifying a network of rivers, a dam, and severalhighways.

“He divided it, drained the water, and within two tothree years it was a desert,” he said. “I believe Baghdad will be likethis.”

Militias are already doing their part to defend Shiites.In a Shiite mosque in northern Baghdad, refugees from the embattlednorthern village of Sabaa al-Bour, many of them women in black abayas,gathered in October asking for food and shelter.

Killings ofShiites in the town had enraged leaders in Baghdad. But weeks haddragged on, and one morning in October, a volunteer walked through therefugees telling them to go back home.

The Mahdi Army was there now, she said. The town was now safe for Shiites.

Shiitesare also making inroads on local and federal levels. Baghdad’smunicipal government is taking bids for designs of a bridge that wouldconnect Greyat with Kadhimiya, two major Shiite areas in northernBaghdad on opposite sides of the Tigris River. Adhamiya, a Sunni areawhere the bridge is now and where it has been closed, would be bypassedaltogether.

“The former regime refused to make the connectionbecause it would strengthen the Shia,” said Naem al-Kaabi, a deputymayor of Baghdad.

In another plan that appears intended torepopulate heavily Sunni-controlled areas with Shiites, the Ministry ofPublic Works has proposed giving land to victims of violence inflictedby Mr. Hussein and by insurgents since 2003. The plots would be in sixtowns outside Baghdad — Abu Ghraib, Taji, Salman Pak, Husseiniya,Mahmudiya and Latifiya, according to a local official familiar with theplan.

Sunni militants now control the towns and have conductedbrutal campaigns to eliminate Shiites. Mr. Hussein gave favors to Sunnitribes there to protect against Shiites from the south. Few Sunnisclaim compensation as victims of violence, since the applicationrequires visits to police stations and hospitals, places no longer safefor Sunnis.

It was not clear how soon the plan would be carriedout. A previous proposal, made by the Iraqi cabinet last year, wouldgive 3,300 square feet of land in heavily Sunni west Baghdad to about3,000 families, but names are still being registered.

In anotherindication of the current mood, a popular cellphone ring in easternBaghdad, now largely Shiite, is a tune with the words: “If you can’tbeat me, don’t fight me.”

The Sunni houses in Naariya did notempty easily. A college student with a Sunni name said he hid in hishouse, as Shiite militiamen went into homes on his block in lateSeptember and marched people away. A few days later, his uncle, a35-year-old refrigerator repairman, was taken. The body was found inUr, a Shiite stronghold in north Baghdad.

But unlike a bombblast, where everybody remembers how someone died, the Sunnis’ lossesseems to melt away. The Mahdi Army-controlled police station had norecord of them.

Terrified, the men of the family scattered, settling on couches and in a garage of friends and family.

The student, Omar, is keeping a diary.

“One day I’ll be a teacher,” he said. “I should teach children what we passed through.”

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