- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2006

BAGHDAD — Masked gunmen methodically separated two busloads of passengers into Sunnis and Shi’ites before fatally shooting 21 Shi’ites yesterday, the latest attack in an ethnically driven campaign of violence that is systematically dividing the capital, one neighborhood at a time.

“They asked us to show our IDs, and then instructed us to stand in a line, separating the Sunni from the Shi’ite due to the IDs and also due to the faces,” said Ismail, a wounded Shi’ite Kurd who told the Associated Press from his hospital bed that he survived by pretending to be dead.

The young man, who asked that his last name not be used, said the gunmen ordered the Shi’ites to lie down before they began firing. “On behalf of Islam, today we will dig a mass grave for you. You are traitors,” he quoted one of them as shouting.

The ambush, in which 11 students and 10 laborers were killed by about 15 masked men in traditional “dashasha” robes, took place about 75 miles north of Baghdad near the town of Qara Tappah. But the hatred that lay behind it runs deep in this terrorized capital, where Sunnis and Shi’ites are steadily sorting themselves into ethnically pure neighborhoods.

Any Baghdad resident can reel off who is safe where: Sunnis are welcome in Dora, Adhamiya, Ghazaliya, Amariyah, Harithiya, and some parts of Mansour, Al Hurriya and Al Shahab. But a Shi’ite dare not enter Dora for fear of being shot.

Shi’ites are free to live in Karrada, Akhademiya, Baiya, Saydia, Sadr City and Alshorta, and in some areas of Mansour, Al Hurriya and Al Shahab. But in Sadr City, Sunnis are no longer tolerated.

“If you are a Sunni and go into a Shi’ite neighborhood, people will start looking at you,” said Abu Yusef, a 27-year old computer programmer who travels widely in the city. “If they are some kind of extremists, they will ask you who you are and for your ID, and you cannot complain.

“If they find out from your ID or your accent that you are Sunni, you will get interrogated, and if they call in the Mahdi militia, you are done, you are dead.”

In neighborhoods where Sunnis and Shi’ites still live alongside one another, a battle is on.

In Sayyida, for example, control is principally in the hands of the Mahdi Army militia, controlled by Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, and local disputes are settled between families or mediated by the young militiamen.

But recently, Sunni extremists began trying to impose a form of Islamic Shariah law in the neighborhood, threatening to kill anyone wearing shorts, men without beards and women in jeans.

“The Sunni are trying to take the district and make it collapse. They attack shops, kill haphazardly and go inside,” said one mixed Sunni-Shi’ite resident in his late 30s.

“In my neighborhood, they have started to settle — they kill the barber, kill the shopkeepers, then try to capture the neighborhood — it is the second or third time they tried to do this,” said the young father, who asking that his name not be used out of fear for his family.

“They have succeeded 100 percent in Dora, Mansour, al-Adel, Al Jamiya, Amariyah — these are controlled 100 percent by the insurgency who are coming from the outside and settling in these neighborhoods,” he said.

The struggle is more personal close by in Baiya, an old middle-class neighborhood where Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds and Christians once lived quietly together, prospering from trade.

Mohammed Salman, whose baby son died in his arms of kidney failure last month, said a number of young Sunni men moved into the neighborhood after U.S. forces cleared out the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in November 2004, leveling much of the city.

“They came into the Sunni section of Baiya, and this is what has destroyed the area,” he said. “When we accepted these people, we accepted them as Jenabi tribe, we didn’t know if they were good or bad, or if they killed. We didn’t know anything about them.”

Shi’ite leaders went to the families who accepted the men and warned that the strangers would make problems. The Sunni families responded by complaining to the mosque leaders, and sectarian hatred and killings took hold.

“Now Baiya is like any other area,” said Mr. Salman.

“There used to be eight of us friends who used to meet on the street corner” to talk, he said. “Out of those eight, six have been killed.”

In Mansour, a large mixed neighborhood of startling art-deco mansions and white-painted iron fences, security is kept by three groups.

The most powerful is an armed militia affiliated with secular Shi’ite and one-time U.S. ally Ahmed Chalabi. Mr. Chalabi’s men —some of them trained by Americans — set up nightly checkpoints to control who moves in the neighborhood.

Less visible are members of the Badr Brigade, a Shi’ite militia whose members focus on protecting their own. If they hear or see someone threatening a Shi’ite, they follow him and kill him outside the area, residents say. Or they call the Ministry of Interior — whose security forces are dominated by Shi’ites — and ask them to intervene.

Almost invisible, but just as lethal, are the Sunni insurgents, who receive their guidance in fundamentalist mosques.

“Normally they don’t set up checkpoints. They live in the houses, and people know they are there, but they are afraid of them,” said Shi’ite resident Hussein Abbas, who was born in Mansour and lives in a house with his parents, wife and children.

Once noted for its swank shops and wealthy families favored by Saddam Hussein’s regime, the neighborhood is now better known for kidnapping. A Russian diplomat was killed and four diplomatic employees were kidnapped here last week.

“They are fighting for control,” said Mr. Abbas.


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