Fear Keeps Baghdad Divided And Warring Sects Apart; Few Sunnis Dare Return

March 25, 2009

Author: Hamza Hendawi

Source: The Chicago Tribune

Wire Service: AP


The streets are calmer now. The fighting between Shiites and Sunnis has largely ceased. But this is not a sign of normalcy in the Iraqi capital. It's fear that keeps the peace.

Only an estimated 16 percent of the mainly Sunni families forced by Shiite militiamen and death squads to flee their homes have dared to return.

It takes two sides to have a fight, and there's really only one side left in Baghdad after violence and fear turned parts of neighborhoods into ghost towns.

Families that have gone back are sometimes met with spray-painted threats and other forms of intimidation. "Back after a break, the Mahdi Army," is a Shiite militia's slogan — playing off the same words that Iraqi television uses as a lead-in to commercials.

The findings — based on statistics obtained by The Associated Press from U.S. and Iraqi officials as well as AP interviews in key Baghdad neighborhoods in recent weeks — are acknowledged by U.S. military commanders on the ground. And they point to a troubling prospect.

Baghdad has been much calmer since the massacres reached their peak in late 2006 and the first half of 2007. And a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday that attacks nationwide had fallen to their lowest level since the first months of the war.

In the capital, however, the calm has been achieved in part because the city is now ethnically divided. Shiites predominate. Sunnis have largely fled.

The situation is somewhat similar to Bosnia after the war of the 1990s — years of calm but no lasting political reconciliation after its populations divided into different regions and governments.

"Baghdad has been turned from a mixed city, about half of its population Shiite and the other half Sunni in 2003, into a Shiite city where the Sunni population may be as little as 10 to 15 percent," said Juan Cole, a prominent U.S. expert on Iraq.

No accurate census has been taken since the bloodletting. But Cole's estimates, backed up by AP observations and U.S. statistics, hold troubling implications for the future should Sunnis come back in greater numbers.