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Neighborhood war breaks out

Baghdad's Amal district, once a mixed area, has become a sectarian battleground. Sunnis appeal for U.S. troops.

February 06, 2007|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — First the Shiite Muslim women came, seemingly to offer advice. "We think you should leave," they told their Sunni Arab neighbors. "You're under threat."

Less than a year later, Amal, a mixed neighborhood in southwest Baghdad, has fallen apart.

Neighbor has turned on neighbor. Boys who grew up together now look at each other through the sights of AK-47s.

Houses have been torched. Fathers, sons and brothers have disappeared.

Sunnis say they are being pushed out of the area by Shiites supported by Iraqi security forces and black-clad Shiite militiamen.

On Monday, for the second consecutive day, Sunnis and Shiites fought openly in the neighborhood, which abuts the road to Baghdad's international airport. At least seven people have been killed in two days.

Outnumbered Sunnis say the U.S. military is their only hope.

"Only the American forces can save us," said Anas Ahmed, a 22-year-old Sunni.

But most of the additional U.S. troops designated by the Bush administration to make a large-scale push through the capital to quell sectarian fighting have yet to arrive.

Although the security effort was announced by President Bush in early January, there is little evidence of it on the streets of Baghdad, where bombings and shootings continue unabated. By the time the U.S. troops and their Iraqi counterparts arrive, Sunnis fear, it may be too late.

In the disputed Amal neighborhood, most of the Sunnis have already fled.

Like many others, Arkan abu Noor, 40, said relations in the neighborhood deteriorated a year ago after Sunni insurgents bombed the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the most important Shiite shrines in Iraq. Abu Noor, a pseudonym that the Sunni police officer asked to use for security reasons, said Shiite women in the neighborhood began dropping veiled warnings to their Sunni neighbors: They could be killed if they stayed.

Sunni residents said they had felt safe until then. After all, they had fought alongside Shiites to protect the neighborhood in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Last year's warnings were followed by attacks on a number of Sunni mosques, several residents said in interviews. Gunmen killed at least one Sunni cleric and drove away others. One Sunni mosque was nearly destroyed in a bombing. Mortar shells rained down on another, crushing parts of its minaret.

Letters appeared carrying bullets and warnings.

"We decided that you should be expelled from our neighborhood in order to make it peaceful," one letter began. "Remove your evil from our neighborhood in the next three days or else you should be killed like dogs in the street." The missive was signed: "God's Revenge."

Former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party received more profane and threatening messages.

"They turned against us and now they're throwing these letters with bullets at us," Abu Noor said of his Shiite neighbors. "They are the sons of the neighborhood."

He said many had become members of the Al Mahdi militia, which is loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.

The police officer and others recounted how dozens of Sunni families had fled after receiving threats. In one tract of about 300 houses, the entire Sunni population had left, he said.

This week he fled his house, which others have told him bears graffiti painted by Shiite militias: "This house cannot be sold, it cannot be rented."

Shiites also are afraid.

Mortar shells from nearby Sunni neighborhoods strike their houses, said Balqees Jebar, a 24-year-old Shiite woman. Gunmen wearing tracksuits occupy the rooftops, keeping watch over the streets, she said.

She said that recently, "mortars started to fall on the houses and the Shiites of Amal decided to retaliate." Climbing to her roof, she saw "gunmen spread across the neighborhood ... in an attempt to protect us. But the mortar fire continues."

In Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad and beyond, violence started at dawn Monday.

By the end of the day, at least 70 civilians were dead, killed by bombings, mortar shells or gunmen.

At 7 a.m., a roadside bomb exploded near a police patrol in east Baghdad, killing one civilian and injuring two others.

Ten minutes later, in a neighborhood farther north, another roadside bomb killed a second civilian and injured three others.

By 8 a.m., mortar shells started raining on various neighborhoods, as well as a water treatment plant near the Tigris River. One man was killed and six people injured by a shell that struck a Sunni-dominated neighborhood.

About midday, a car bomb blew up near a minibus terminal, killing five people and injuring 15. It was followed by a second car bomb, at a gas station, that killed four people and injured 10. A roadside bomb went off near car repair shops in downtown Baghdad, killing eight people and injuring 18.

In addition, at least 15 people were killed and 62 injured in a pair of midday car bombings in a south Baghdad neighborhood.

One more car bomb went off in front of a children's hospital, killing four people and injuring 14.

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