Threats driving Shiites out of homes

BAGHDAD — From his poor farm community on the outskirts of Baghdad, Hassan Melhan could feel the heat rising. Dozens of fellow Shiites in other villages had been frightened out by threats from Sunni militants, and he had heard some had even been killed. When traveling to Shiite holy places to pray, he would take care not to tell his neighbors about it.
Then came the leaflets scattered on the streets and doorsteps. Someone had decided he and 21 other Shiites were collaborators with the Americans and enemies of the resistance. Leave now, the typewritten flyers warned, or else “the resistance groups will chop your heads off wherever you are and without hesitation.” When Melhan, a farmer in his 50s, saw the leaflet on Saturday, July 9, and spotted his name on the list, he felt as though “struck by lightning.” That day he moved his family of 17 people out of their mud house in the Radwaniyah district and sent them to Diwaniyah, a largely Shiite city more than 140 kilometres away, saying he would join them the following day. Another 19 families left, he said. On Monday, neighbors said Melhan too was gone.

The episode fuels sectarian tensions and anger at those in power, and strikes at a way of life. Around here, many Sunnis and Shiites at the bottom of Iraqi society share their poverty, labour, eat together, even intermarry. The US-led invasion and the elections of Jan. 30 have put Iraq’s majority Shiites on top politically, but in places like Radwaniyah, they are caught between a Sunni-dominated insurgency and a Shiite-led government they say offers them little protection.

They scoff at the notion that they are collaborators. “If I were helping the government, wouldn’t it have done something for us by now?” said Melhan. “They see people being driven out daily, and they don’t do anything. Whom can I go to?” Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, undersecretary of the interior ministry, says his government owes the villagers protection and says they should get in touch with authorities for help.

But Melhan and others complain the government lacks the clout to protect them. Months of raids and arrests by both American and Iraqi forces have failed to stamp out the intimidation.

In such an atmosphere, even asking police or soldiers for protection could be enough to get someone killed as a collaborator. Stories of militants brutally killing anyone who dares defy them fuel the perception that even with the best intentions, the government is impotent against a faceless enemy.

Salim Dakhil said his 19-member family moved about 80 kilometres south to the Shiite city of Karbala after receiving the threat, which was addressed to his father.

“I have left my home and my land. Now I’m trying to rent a house but I don’t have money,” he said in a telephone interview from Karaba. “Will the government pay my rent or give me a home? Maybe the government can’t protect us.” Life had never been easy for Dakhil’s family. They had no running water, and as the insurgency heated up they would stay indoors from sundown, he said, because “our area is the peak of terrorism.” Shiites in these suburbs of Baghdad increasingly believe the insurgents’ goal is a sectarian cleansing that would make the area entirely Sunni. But Kamal, the interior ministry official, said there had also been Shiite threats against Sunnis in areas on the outskirts of Baghdad. He insisted they were not widespread and that some were motivated by tribal feuds.

“We’re trying to calm the situation and not to let it escalate,” he said, adding that his minister had met with some local leaders to warn against encouraging intimidation.

“Some terrorist groups are trying to sow sedition and divisions among the Iraqi people,” he said, adding that there were laws to prevent it. Laith Kubba, spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said he wasn’t aware of the leaflet blitz and noted that Iraqi security forces had intervened in other instances to prevent sectarian attacks. One example was the raid by Iraqi troops, backed by US forces, on Madain in April following claims that Sunni militants had kidnapped up to 100 Shiites and threatened to kill them unless all Shiites left town. The troops found weapons, car bombs and a suspected insurgent training facility, but no hostages.

Melhan, the Shiite who fled Baghdad’s Radwaniyah district, feels more should be done. “The government is not striking hard enough. There should be a deterrent,” he said, also in a telephone interview.

The insurgents “want these areas to be 100 per cent Sunni,” Melhan said. “They claim that they are persecuted and that because now there’s a Shiite government in office, they have been left out. As if the government will make me a prime minister just because I’m a Shiite!” Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Shiites have enjoyed unprecedented freedoms. But Melhan says the new government has done little for him. His friend, Maher Kadhim, adds: “Saddam Hussein was better. At least he provided security.” Kadhim, a 25-year-old Shiite farmer, said he hasn’t received a threat, but believes his turn is coming.

“They are fanatics…. They want to spark a sectarian war,” he said of the militants.

He and others make a point of separating the militants from their Sunni neighbours in general, who they say are sympathetic to the Shiites’ predicament. Dakhil says his Sunni neighbours were crying as his family packed and left.

The owner of the farm where Melhan works is a Sunni, and so is Melhan’s son-in-law.

“They’re my friends and brothers. We have eaten together,” Melhan said.

Shiite lawmaker and cleric Jalal Al Deen Al Saghir said he was bringing the threats to the attention of other legislators and the interior ministry.

“It is difficult to completely secure this area. This cannot be solved without the intervention of the multinational forces,” he said. “This is a vast and open area that is close to the desert and to highways.” Saghir claimed the security forces were so deeply infiltrated by officers with links or sympathies to the insurgency that situations like that in Radwaniyah were difficult to control.

He said the government which took office in April has inherited a troubled legacy and has to tread carefully.

“When the government tries to make a move, some people wage the sword of sectarianism in its face,” Saghir said. “The government cannot turn a sect into an enemy.” He said he spoke with officials from the Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni group, about attacks on Shiites and found them very understanding. “They say that terrorism is hurting them more than it’s hurting Shiites.” Some Shiite leaders say their followers are begging them for permission to take revenge, but they refuse. Melhan says all he wants is to make a living.

“I just want to live in peace,” he said. “That’s all I want.”

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