30,000 more flee as Iraq violence deepens

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Tens of thousands more Iraqis have fled their homes as sectarian violence looks ever more like civil war two months after a US-backed national unity government was formed, official data showed on Thursday.

Iraq’s most powerful religious authority, Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, joined the United Nations and US officials in raising the alarm that a spike in bloodshed and “campaigns of displacement” threaten Iraq’s very future.

The US military admitted violence in Baghdad was little changed by a monthlong clampdown and the city morgue said it had seen 1,000 bodies so far in July, a slight increase on June.

A day after the United States issued a stern warning to both Shiite and minority Sunni leaders to match talk with action on reining in and reconciling “death squads” and “terrorists” from their respective communities, the migration ministry said more than 30,000 people had registered as refugees this month alone.

“We consider this to be a dangerous sign,” ministry spokesman Sattar Nowruz told Reuters, acknowledging that many more people fled abroad or quietly sought refuge with relatives rather than sign up for official aid or move into state camps.

The increase took to 27,000 families — some 162,000 people — the number who have registered for help with the ministry in the five months since the February 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine at Samarra sparked a new phase of communal bloodshed.

Among 11 new tented camps being set up by the ministry is one in the southern city of Diwaniya, where police said some 10,000 Shiite refugees have arrived in recent weeks.

They include Abd Hammad Saeidi: “Gunmen told us to leave or they would kill us,” said the farmer from the violent lands just south of Baghdad. His family of 11 now live in a tent.

At a Sunni mosque in Baghdad, Red Crescent officials said numbers taking refuge there rose sharply after suspected Shiite militiamen killed 40 in the Sunni district of Jihad on July 9.

Mother of 10 Um Yaseen recalled fleeing the area: “It was a black day … and not a single policeman was there to help us.” 

Crackdown

The US military conceded that a massive security operation launched a month ago to stop violence tearing Baghdad apart had achieved only a “slight downtick” in bloodshed.

“It’s a start. We’re moving in the right direction,” Major General William Caldwell said, saying it would take “months not weeks” to gain a victory he described as a “must win” for Iraq.

A car bomb killed three people in west Baghdad on Thursday.

The United Nations matched the US ambassador and the US military commander in Iraq on Wednesday in sounding an alarm, two months after Prime Minister Nuri Maliki’s coalition of Sunnis, Kurds and fellow Shiites was sworn in by parliament.

The UN envoy to Baghdad warned of a risk of civil war.

Sistani, a reclusive sage whose restraining grip on Shiite factions appears to be slipping, issued a rare statement: “I call on all sons of Iraq … to be aware of the danger threatening their nation’s future and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in confronting it by rejecting hatred and violence,” he said.

The Shiite Endowment, which oversees mosques, joined its Sunni counterpart in suspending work for five days in protest at the kidnapping of 19 Sunni Endowment officials in Baghdad.

Iraq’s Olympic Committee is missing after another big kidnap this week but four of those seized with him were freed unharmed.

Four of the bloodiest incidents this year have taken place this month — two Al Qaeda car bombings of Shiite markets in Baghdad and Kufa and two gun attacks blamed on Shiite factions.

Those four alone, two of them just this week, claimed some 220 lives. But as the United Nations said this week, that is a fraction of some 100 civilians a day who are dying in violence.

Maliki goes next week to Washington, where President George W. Bush hopes for progress in Iraq that may help at November’s congressional elections and make it easier to withdraw troops.

But Iraqi politicians and diplomats increasingly question the resolve within the government and parliament to set aside partisan aims to stop a bloody break-up of the oil-rich state.

Maliki has outlined a national reconciliation plan that he calls a “last chance” for peace. He announced a first meeting of a panel on Saturday that he said would feature former opponents.

But there is little substance yet to be seen in the plan.

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