Baghdad families imprisoned, divided by fear

BAGHDAD — For Abu Mina, a ceramic artist and professor, Baghdad is one big jail — too dangerous for him to live with his wife and daughters, too dangerous for him to meet his students openly, too dangerous to work in his studio.

He and his son, a 21-year-old medical student, recently left the family home for fear of sectarian attacks, dividing his family as the city itself has become increasingly divided.

It is just this sort of private tragedy that US President George W. Bush must help end with his new strategy for securing Baghdad with more troops.

“They kill just boys and men,” Abu Mina said of sectarian gunmen. “They leave girls and women. Yesterday my wife gave me a call and she told me my neighbour, a dentist, they took him.”

“That means in two days they will find him outside Baghdad without life. They kill everybody. So I left my wife and my two girls and I brought with me just my son,” said Abu Mina, who studied in the United States.

His family is now divided by the Tigris River, increasingly a sectarian barrier that slices Baghdad into mainly Sunni west and mostly Shiite Muslim east, and he rarely sees his wife and daughters, though they managed a brief holiday chat last week.

“Can you imagine how horrible, my wife and my kids can’t come and see me,” he said. “At eid, they came by taxi to a market and they gave me a call and I went to the market and we met. We hugged and kissed and then we cried. It was terrible.

“It’s like a jail. Baghdad now is a big jail,” said Abu Mina, asking to be identified only by his informal name which means Father of Mina, one of his daughters.

Hundreds of people are killed every week in bombings, mortar attacks and by sectarian death squads that have driven tens of thousands of people of both sects from their homes, turning what used to be mixed neighbourhoods into sectarian enclaves.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has announced a major security plan for Baghdad, starting shortly, that is widely seen by Iraqi officials as a last chance to avert all-out civil war.

Bush appears to agree. He said last week he was sending 21,500 more US troops and on Saturday said the new operation would “in large part determine the outcome in Iraq”.

Both Shiites and Sunni Arabs are being killed and fleeing their homes. In the past week Sunni Arab politicians have complained of “ethnic cleansing” and a leading Shiite said Shiites were victims of “sectarian genocide”.

Maliki, a Shiite Islamist, has promised to take on illegal groups regardless of their sect or political affiliation.

Whether Shiite or Sunni, Iraqis face the same problems. Abu Mina’s son has attended classes at medical school just once in the past two weeks and he took a roundabout route to avoid dangerous areas. His father gave him a fake identity card because his real name would clearly identify his religion.

“What makes me crazy is I can’t work because my studio is over there and I’m here, so I switched from clay. I’m now using paper and oils just to do something,” Abu Mina said.

“I used to teach three days a week, but right now … I have to go secretly to my students in other areas. I give them a call, there are seven of them, and we meet secretly.” He is also still working on his master work, a huge outdoor ceramics project — but only his head: “I tell my students my dream is just to have 10 years to do my project,” he said.

“We still dream.” Maliki has hesitated to crack down on gunmen loyal to fellow Shiites, such as the Mehdi army of cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, to the fury of Sunni Arabs who accuse him of bias and focusing on Sunni Arab insurgents who kill Shiites.

US commanders have said this was a major flaw in the last attempt to secure Baghdad five months ago.

Other aspects that will be new, they say, is a determination to maintain large numbers of troops in neighbourhoods long after the first effort to drive out gunmen — including squads of Americans whose job will be partly to ensure Iraqi forces do not themselves commit sectarian violence against the population.

Maliki, under heavy pressure from Washington, is now committed to tackling violence from all sides, he and other Iraqi officials say. Bush has pledged 17,500 more troops just for Baghdad to help him, but many in Baghdad are sceptical.

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