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Sectarian Violence Stirs Neighborhood, Militias


Like many neighborhoods, Amiriya, on the west side of the Iraqi capital, has become a killing ground. Each morning bodies are found on the roadsides, often bound, tortured and shot in the head. Some people are fleeing their homes, and those who stay wonder how long it will be before they are targeted, too. NPR's Jamie Tarabay has the story.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

It used to be considered a well-to-do neighborhood. Businessmen live here in its large houses behind high walls and trimmed lawns. But now, those walls bear the pockmarks of bullets. The streets are virtually empty during the day. At night, windows are shut, and no one dares step outside.

Ms. TARA USTEV(ph) (Resident, Baghdad): (Arabic spoken)

TARABAY: Inside one of those houses, Tara Ustev's 18-month-old daughter, Dalia(ph), crawls on the carpet. She says, don't even ask about the explosions. Kabooms are like a bad soap opera she says she's forced to watch. She's lived here in Amiriya for five years. She's a housewife, with a degree in political science. For now, her main concern is keeping Dalia safe.

Ms. USTEV: (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) I am suffering now. I can't get out to go shopping. Can't take my child out. I'm always home. I can't go to the hospital alone. Can't go to the doctor. I stay home all the time now.

TARABAY: Amiriya is on the far western edge of Baghdad. It sits on one side of the main road to the international airport. The frequent U.S. patrols attract insurgents. They dash into Amiriya, set up explosive devices along the highway, and quickly dash out again. In the beginning, they focused on the U.S. military. Now, though, Tara Ustev says no one in Amiriya is safe.

Ms. USTEV: (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) Shiites, I can't tell you who. One man who had a grocery shop was killed. The other was a mechanic, a market owner. This morning our neighbor was killed.

TARABAY: She picks up Dalia and bounces her on her lap and continues the litany.

Ms. USTEV: (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) At nine a.m. every day, I hear gunshots. The other day, armed men killed a young man buying cigarettes. He was young, 21 years old, and was killed at the end of our street. We've seen many killings.

TARABAY: She says everyone here is a target.

Ms. USTEV: (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) Not only the Shiites, the Sunnis are also getting killed. But I see that the majority of those killed are Shiite.

TARABAY: Tara's home in Amiriya is near the Major Crimes Bureau. That's where Iraqis go to report felonies. It's also a target, and it attracts people who have scores to settle.

Ms. USTEV: (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) Once I saw three men killing a young man in my street, and later I heard he was a policeman at the bureau. I was walking with my husband, and we saw a dead body lying in the street.

TARABAY: When the gunfire comes too close, residents respond by shooting out of their windows. Now Tara's husband has given her a gun, just in case something happens while he's not at home.

Ms. USTEV: (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) Once I used it, knowing that I hate weapons, but I had to use it. I heard a sound at night in the street, and heavy firing was going on, so I had to go to the roof and fire a bullet. I don't know how I managed to fire it. Maybe out of fear. I just shot to show there's a man in the house.

TARABAY: Tara is a Christian. She wears a modest skirt, but doesn't cover her hair. She knows she's not immune from the sectarian violence. But she wants to believe the intermarrying among Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians has bonded everyone just enough to prevent an outright civil war.

Down the street from Tara's house is the home of Abu Muhammed al-Habadi(ph). A Shiite, al-Habadi ran the generator for the neighborhood. He'd buy fuel on the black market and during the frequent blackouts provide electricity to his neighbors, even those who couldn't afford to pay him. Sitting in his garden one night, wearing a long white Arab tunic, he prepared a water pipe to smoke for the evening. He said he felt like he'd be sentencing people to death if he left them in the darkness.

Mr. ABU MUHAMMED AL-HABADI (Resident, Baghdad): (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) Things have become very bad. I'm suffering to pay the rent, fees for water and electricity. There's no security, and I fear for my children. I am always worried for my children, especially in our neighborhood, where killing goes on the basis of the person's ID card.

TARABAY: Recently, he said, insurgents scrawled threats against Shiites on someone's wall. The menacing graffiti called Shiites infidels and atheists, and, it added, killing them is fine. Al-Habadi said if he was threatened, he would leave.

Mr. AL-HABADI: (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) I am scared all day and all night. I might get killed any moment.

TARABAY: Al-Habadi's fear was well founded. Less than 12 hours after he spoke in this interview, he was killed. He was driving a vanload of local children to school in the morning when gunmen suddenly appeared. They shot Al-Habadi, then dragged his body out of the van, leaving him face down in a puddle in the rain. The children who watched included his own daughter.

This kind of bloodshed is a daily occurrence in Amiriya now. Execution-style killings and beheadings have become almost routine. Days before al-Habadi's death, insurgents burst into the home of a poor Shiite family. They killed the man and then burned his body. The woman and children were then burned alive.

Mr. HALDUN MASIAS(ph) (Resident, Baghdad): (Arabic spoken)

TARABAY: Haldun Masias is a Sunni. He says it's a rare morning when he doesn't leave his house to hear that a friend or neighbor is dead.

Mr. MASIAS: (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) We leave home in the morning to look for jobs, and I see a man lying dead in front of me. The problem is that no one is willing to approach him, not even the police. Sometimes a body lays out there from the morning until night.

TARABAY: Masias says he's afraid that if anyone sees him offering help, even simply picking up a body, he might be killed. And he says he isn't the only one.

Mr. MASIAS: (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) I saw a man lying in the streets, wearing track pants. People passed by him, and I was amazed. Their hearts have become hard. It's a shame Iraqis have become like this. Your Iraqi brother is lying in the street, and you leave him, just like that.

TARABAY: But in the next breath, Haldun Masias recalls men who did take away a man's body after he'd been gunned down, only to be shot at themselves.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jamie Tarabay
After reporting from Iraq for two years as NPR's Baghdad Bureau Chief, Jamie Tarabay is now embarking on a two year project reporting on America's Muslims. The coverage will take in the country's approx 6 million Muslims, of different ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and the issues facing their daily lives as Americans.