Iraq

Iraq: Insurgents distrust displaced Sunni

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Even after fleeing to a neighbourhood controlled by their co-religionists, Sunni refugees don't feel safe.

By Hazim al-Shara in Baghdad (ICR No. 218, 13-Apr-07)

Abu Ahmed al-Basri was ordered to leave his hometown of Basra by a Shia militia after the bombing of a holy Shia shrine in Samarra in February 2006 sparked ethnic violence throughout Iraq.

The Sunni Muslim and his family, who have lived all their lives in the south, were reluctant to leave, but didn't dare disobey the militiamen.

Basri decided to take his family to Amiriya, a Sunni-majority neighbourhood in western Baghdad, expecting to be welcomed by his co-religionists. They loaded their furniture and belongings onto a truck and travelled 600 kilometres north.

But the reception in Baghdad was anything but cordial - Sunni insurgents in charge of the area told Basri that he had to get their clearance before he could stay. For that, he would need a personal recommendation from a Sunni sponsor.

Luckily, Basri found a friend of a friend who agreed to vouch for his family. They moved in, feeling safe at last.

But it soon transpired that because he was new in the area, the insurgents did not trust Basri and suspected him of working for the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.

The family was harassed and pestered by unsolicited visits from insurgents.

"I can't sleep at night in fear of those frequent visitors," Basri complained bitterly.

Now, a year after moving to Baghdad, he still has no job, and daren't look for one beyond his neighbourhood because of security fears.

Sunni families who have been displaced from Shia areas are increasingly under suspicion and targeted by Sunni insurgents, who accuse them of collaborating with the Iraqi government and coalition forces.

Several of Baghdad's formerly mixed neighbourhoods have become either purely Sunni or Shia after militants and militias forced families out for belonging to the "wrong" religious group.

But Iraqis don't feel safe even among those of their own faith.

The atmosphere of distrust that pervades the capital keeps people on their guard. Newcomers are often suspected of being extremists, militiamen, criminals spying for kidnap gangs, or government collaborators.

An estimated 1.9 million Iraqis are internally displaced and around 2 million have fled to neighbouring countries, mainly to Syria and Jordan, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. The figures are increasing as violence and sectarian strife continue.

Since 2006, more than 700,000 Iraqis have been internally displaced because of sectarian violence, reports UNHCR.

Following the Samarra bombings, thousands of Sunni families were forced from their homes in the Shia majority areas where militias are in charge.

When Shia militias or Sunni insurgents force a family out, they take control of the house, and often give it to a family from their own community, which has been displaced from another area.

The militants demand that each new family provides a sponsor, to make sure they're not working for the Iraqi government.

Some Sunni insurgents, who didn't want to be named, said that their goal is to create "pure pro-insurgency neighbourhoods" that are easy for them to control.

Whoever does not obey their commands or tries to resist their actions, risks his life. Recently, a mosque in Anbar province, an al-Qaeda stronghold, was bombed and many Sunni praying there at the time were killed. It came after the local Imam had criticised the insurgents.

Sunni insurgents also distrust Sunni who have entered mixed marriages with Shia, suspecting that the Sunni spouse will sympathise with the Shia and work for the government.

Such marriages are common - the authorities estimate two million of the 6.5 million marriages in Iraq are between Sunni and Shia, according to the United Nations reporting service IRIN.

Ahmed al-Janabi, who is married to a Shia and is from the majority Sunni suburb of al-Dora, was shocked to see graffiti on the gate of his garage when he left for work one morning. "Get out of here, traitor," said the message.

Janabi, a taxi driver and father of four, took the warning seriously. He had witnessed enough abductions and murders to know that such graffiti was not a joke. "If we ignore it, it might cost us our lives," he said.

Um Khalid, Janabi's wife, wanted to investigate the threat and went to the nearby mosque, where Sunni insurgents are know to be based. But the imam there said he was unable to help.

When Um Khalid left the mosque, a neighbour approached her and told her the insurgents had acted because she was a Shia and questioned her husband's loyalties.

The insurgents, he said, feared Janabi might give away information to his wife's Shia relatives or to the government. The neighbour strongly suggested the family leave the area.

The couple decided to move to Syria, where a friend of Janabi had promised him a job. They did not even dare to say goodbye to their neighbours. "I think I will never come back," said Janabi.

Displaced Sunni seeking refuge within Iraq have few choices about where to go.

They cannot go to Shia areas, and in many Sunni ones, the insurgents will not accept them either, especially if they have a mixed marriage.

Some choose stable areas in Iraqi Kurdistan, while many - like Janabi and Um Khalid - flee to Syria.

Mithal al-Alusi, a member of Iraqi parliament from the al-Umma party, said the insurgents force out certain families to expand their power and "to create strongholds for their armed operations".

People rarely contact the Iraqi army for help because they seem incapable of fighting insurgents and many question their loyalty. The police - the members of which are mainly Shia - have, meanwhile, been repeatedly accused of involvement in the kidnapping, torture and killing of Sunni.

None of the families interviewed for this report had contacted the police for help.

At a cement barrier used as checkpoint by security forces in al-Dora, a police lieutenant admitted that people are unwilling to inform the security forces about what is happening in their neighbourhoods.

"We are incapable of putting an end to displacement because we have no bases inside the neighbourhoods," he said. "We also lack round-the-clock patrols and intelligence activities in areas controlled by insurgents."

And within these areas, it seems, no one is safe.

Amir al-Ani, a Sunni physician, said he never thought insurgents would target him and his wife, Maha Omar, also a doctor, "because we were the only doctors who provided health care for the residents and the insurgents themselves as well".

Dr Ani was well known in his neighbourhood for his calls for moderation.

Once a patient warned him to stop saying that God does not distinguish between people. "I thanked the patient for his advice but I didn't realise it was a threat from the insurgents," he said.

A week after the patient's warning, a huge explosion destroyed his house and clinic, while he and his wife were seeing patients. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

The Sunni insurgents used the fact that the couple have a pet dog to justify targeting them. "The extremists criticised us all the time for raising a dog they considered to be dirty," said Dr Omar.

They have decided to go abroad and are currently waiting in Kurdistan for their paperwork to be processed.

"We will go to a western country where we can provide a prosperous life for our children far from Jihadis and extremists who want to wreck our life," she said.

As for Basri, he decided to go back to Basra after friends and relatives there urged him to return, promising to protect him.

"I have decided to return, whatever it may cost me," he said. "Life [in Baghdad] is unbearable. I left Basra to save the life of my family - not to risk it."

Hazim al-Shara is an IWPR contributor.