- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have abandoned their homes and moved into makeshift housing in the last few weeks because of death threats from organized Sunni and Shi’ite militias and gangs, the president of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society said yesterday.

“Some [militia] members come with leaflets and envelopes with blood-stained bullets and tell them to leave,” Said Hakki said in a telephone interview from Baghdad. “These numbers are rising and rising at an alarming rate.”

Caught up in a surge of brutal sectarian killings since an attack on a Shi’ite shrine in February, these families are now living in tent camps, schools and mosques scattered around Baghdad, Iraq’s southern and western provinces, and along the Jordanian border.

“We now have camps all over 14 provinces,” Mr. Hakki said. Major concentrations are in the cities of Samarra, Fallujah, Basra, Najaf, and various Baghdad neighborhoods including Sadr City.

In the three weeks from March 22 to April 15, the number of displaced people tripled from an estimated 23,000 to more than 69,000 people, Mr. Hakki said. By yesterday, the number had topped 80,000.

According to the Iraqi Red Crescent’s latest report, 7,056 Shi’ite families and 2,860 Sunni families were displaced, with each family representing eight to 10 people.

Sunni-Shi’ite killings, executions and torture have intensified since the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a Shi’ite shrine. Every day, authorities pick up the bodies of handcuffed men shot in the head, some with signs of torture with electric drills. Gunfights rage in Baghdad neighborhoods almost every night.

Mr. Hakki said that those forced to leave were living in mixed neighborhoods where Shi’ites and Sunnis live side by side. The threats were coming from gangs and militias based outside the neighborhoods, he said. “They are highly organized. It is not happening in a haphazard way.”

Many of the families have been forced to leave with nothing but the clothes they had on, warned that if they took any of their belongings there would be reprisals, he said.

Shi’ites are fleeing to southern Shi’ite areas or Shi’ite neighborhoods around Baghdad, while Sunnis are escaping to mainly Sunni areas outside Fallujah or points in western Anbar province, where the Sunni-led insurgency has its stronghold. Palestinian and Kurdish refugees are massing along the Iraq-Jordan border, Mr. Hakki said.

He said the Red Crescent was working with the prime minister’s office, as well as the ministries of Health, Migration and Displacement, Interior, and Defense to supply the displaced families with potable water, latrines, food and bedding. He said he had met with U.S. officials two weeks ago, and had been promised more potable water and latrines.

Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, spokesman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq, said U.S. officials were aware of the problem and discussed it regularly with the Iraqi government. But he said he was not aware of any requests to the MNF-I for assistance.

“Clearly, it is a problem that we are addressing and we are concerned with,” Col. Johnson said from Baghdad yesterday. “We are talking with the Iraqi government to alleviate the problem. The key issue is to continue to develop the Iraqi security forces and peoples’ confidence in their ability.”

Mr. Hakki said Red Crescent officials have spoken with the deputy prime minister, and the ministries of Interior, Defense and Health about efforts to prevent outbreaks of communicable diseases, and to set up small outpatient clinics to care for the elderly and expecting mothers.

“The other thing we don’t want is for these camps to become targets for terrorism,” said Mr. Hakki. “It would be a disaster. We have to stop it, this trend must be stopped and reversed.”

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