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Syrian conflict fuels ethnic bloodshed in Iraq
The civil war in Syria has given rise to growing mayhem between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq — and fears that it may get worse.
The New York Times
MUQDADIYA, Iraq —
The orange archway at the entrance to this farming community welcomes visitors in “peace.” For generations, Shiite and Sunni families worked the land, earning a living from their sheep and cows, their wheat fields and lemon trees.
On a recent morning, though, the only talk was of how to stop them from killing one another. The latest strategy: new concrete walls with separate entries for the different sects.
“So there’s a Sunni way in, and a Shiite way in,” Abu Jassim, a Sunni resident who recently fled his home after revenge killings by Shiite gunmen, explained to a local representative in Parliament.
During the worst of Iraq’s carnage over the past decade, this area of Diyala province, a mixed region where Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds still compete for power, faced killings and displacement. But what is happening now, villagers say, is worse — described by one Western diplomat as “Balkans-style ethnic cleansing.”
Iraqi leaders worry that the violence may be a sign of what awaits the rest of the country if the government cannot quell the growing mayhem that many trace to the civil war in Syria, which has inflamed sectarian divisions, with Sunnis supporting the rebels and Shiites backing the Assad government. Attacks have become more frequent this year, with major bombings almost daily. The violence countrywide has increased to a level not seen in five years, according to the United Nations, reinforcing fears that sectarian warfare, such as gripped the country in 2006 and 2007, will reignite.
In this town, perched in the Tigris River valley on the way from Baghdad to the Iranian border, it already has.
It started in mid-July, when a fragile tranquility was shattered after a teenage boy, in a baggy T-shirt concealing a vest of explosives, walked into a Shiite funeral tent and detonated himself while mourners ate a dinner of lamb, rice and tomato soup.
The bombing was blamed on a resurgent al-Qaida in Iraq, and the bomber was from a local Sunni tribe, inflaming not just sectarian hatred but local rivalries.
In the days after, locals say, Shiite gunmen, some with ties to militias, others out for tribal justice, terrorized Sunni neighborhoods, killing some and demanding others leave.
“It’s worse than anything that ever happened before,” said Ali Jassim, another displaced resident, who, like others, withheld his full name for safety reasons. “It was people attacking at night with machine guns, not considering if there were kids or women or old men.”
Ali Jassim said he cowered in his chicken coop with his wife and children as gunmen fired on his home shouting: “You are Sunni, you don’t belong here. We will kill you if you don’t leave.” The next morning, he packed some clothes and mattresses into a minivan and fled to a safer place, leaving his chickens and sheep behind.
He had lived in that house since 1966, staying through the worst days of the sectarian war, but now says he will never go back.
Other residents received fliers on their doorstep, under the name of a prominent Shiite militia and wrapped around a bullet, telling them to leave or be killed, according to residents, officials and Human Rights Watch.
The increasing role of Shiite militias here is a potentially ominous barometer of the country’s stability, an indication that the Shiite majority may have decided it is time, once more, to fight the Sunnis.
Even after the Sunni insurgency was tamed in 2007, there was less violence but no reconciliation, and al-Qaida kept up bombings aimed at restarting a sectarian war. But the Shiites, who are in charge of the government and security forces, mostly refrained from a violent response. The Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, claimed to be a leader of all Iraqis, burnishing his nationalist credentials by taking on the Shiite militias in several military operations.
But now that calculus is changing: The militias, some of which answer to Iran, are re-emerging to protect their sect, believing that the security forces are unable to do so.
And the events that have unfolded in Muqdadiya, while the most vicious incidents of sectarian bloodletting, are not isolated: Latifiya, for instance, a Sunni-dominated area in south Baghdad, has seen the slaughter of entire Shiite families recently. And on Wednesday night, the Baghdad office of the United Nations issued a statement that it was “gravely concerned” about recent forced displacements of Sunnis in southern Iraq and ethnic Shabaks in Nineveh Province in the north.
As Sunni families have fled Muqdadiya — at least 365 families, according to a government official — locals say militiamen have burned farmlands, shut off electricity, killed farm animals and poured cement into irrigation canals, in an effort to assure they would not return. And the violence continues: According to a local official, bombs recently destroyed two vacant Sunni homes.
Nahada Daini, a Sunni member of Parliament, is trying to prevent her hometown from descending into a maelstrom of violence.
On a recent morning, Sunni villagers gathered in her reception hall to tell their stories and ask for protection so they can return home. In the background, Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama appeared on a television screen, making their case to bomb Syria, whose war has increasingly destabilized Iraq. One man said his family had lived here for a century and a half, since the days of the Ottoman Empire, but was now being told that this was Shiite land.
Since the bombing of the funeral in July, the Iraqi security forces have been raiding homes in Sunni neighborhoods, casting a wide net in search of al-Qaida terrorists. They have restricted the movements of Sunni residents who stayed behind, making it difficult for them to drive vehicles from their neighborhoods, Daini said.
New blast walls have gone up around a central market that’s between Sunni and Shiite areas. She said local police that she suspects are part of a Shiite militia had tried to prevent Sunni men from even visiting the market, fearing they would set off bombs. The women must walk long distances to shop.
In describing the situation, she invoked a potent symbol of Arab grievance.
“We call it Gaza,” she said.
Prominent members of the Shiite community, including Sheik Jathban Adnan al-Tameemi, attended the funeral that was struck by the suicide bomber, but he had left early. Sitting in his big meeting room recently, where he recalled once holding a “useless” meeting on reconciliation with Sunni tribal chiefs, Tameemi flipped through an album with photographs of him with friends from the American military. He still writes emails to them, his son translating.
“I’m so embarrassed to tell them what is going on here,” he said.
For many young men over the past decade, sectarian identity has come to override tribal loyalties, eroding the authority of men like Tameemi and enabling the rise of extremist groups.
He said young men had become more radicalized in recent years, as losses mounted, and that the next generation of extremists might be even more extreme.
“The problem of Muqdadiya,” he said, “could spread through Diyala, to Baghdad, to all of Iraq.”