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Christians chased out of district

Leaders in one Baghdad area say 500 families fled after threats by Islamic radicals. U.S. bolsters its presence.

June 27, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

It was in this fearful atmosphere that Abu Salam watched as the Islamic State of Iraq moved to evict Christians in April. Gunmen began visiting people, making threats. U.N. refugee officials reported that militant groups also were demanding that Christian women marry members of their groups.

On Easter Sunday, the militants visited Abu Salam's neighbor across the street. One of his neighbor's sons, in his early 20s, was sitting in his garden wearing shorts when gunmen seized him and took him away. A few hours later, they returned with the young man, wearing trousers, stole his brother's car, looted the house and tore up pictures of Jesus and Mary.

"They left them penniless. A Muslim neighbor gave them some money, so they took a taxi and ran away," Abu Salam said.

The next raid came two days later, when a 60-year-old neighbor returning from a vacation drove up in his car. Gunmen pulled the man's daughter and wife out of the vehicle and then drove off in it. They held the man for almost two days and demanded a ransom. They cursed Jesus and Mary in phone calls to the man's wife.

After the man was released, the family fled, and the militants moved people into the house. To celebrate the evictions, the militants held a victory parade, driving their cars and waving guns.

"They thought no one could defeat them," Abu Salam said.

By the time the fighters visited Abu Salam on the first Friday in May, they already had been to his father-in-law's and older brother's houses. Abu Salam and his relatives were the last of the 10 Christian families that had lived on their street.

Abu Salam left Dora within hours, but his father-in-law decided to stay and pay the protection money. That night, fighters visited the home. When his father-in-law opened the door, masked gunmen pushed him and demanded to know whether someone was hiding inside. They searched the house, looked for weapons and asked for his gold.

Abu Salam had planned to return the next day to pick up his furniture, but when he heard what had happened, he decided he could never go back. He had given his keys to a Sunni family to watch his property, but he soon heard that militants had moved people into his home.

"They are still using the house. We don't have weapons or a gang. We leave it to God's will to see what they will do," he said.

"We've heard the Americans are sealing off the neighborhood. They have a big ground force; but if they can't do anything, who can?"


Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis and Wail Alhafith contributed to this report.

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