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Policy renews fears of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad district

Residents wary of revealing tribe

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post / October 6, 2008
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BAGHDAD - The document appeared harmless enough - a computer-generated form, on white paper, seeking personal information. The two Iraqi soldiers who handed it to Abu Samir at his house were polite and respectful. But when the Christian shopkeeper took a closer look, he froze.

The document asked for a copy of the deed to his house, his children's names and, most disturbing, the name of his tribe, which identifies his religion and ethnicity. In Iraq, such a request has often been the first step toward death.

"When I saw it, it was like someone was trying to push us back to the previous era," said Abu Samir, 48, who lives in Zayouna, an ethnically mixed, upper-middle-class enclave in eastern Baghdad. "We are afraid that sectarianism will come back."

The forms were part of an effort to enhance the rule of law and encourage reconciliation by identifying residents living in houses that had been emptied by sectarian cleansing and prodding them to return to their own neighborhoods, government officials said.

In 2006, many people fleeing sectarian tensions in other areas entered Zayouna and occupied vacant houses there. Now, authorities are determined to bring displaced people back. But with a newly assertive Shi'ite-led government taking over security and US troops increasingly playing a support role, the forms prompted fears that they were a prelude to more ethnic cleansing.

"The security situation is still fragile," said Numan al-Bayati, 35, a Sunni government employee, who also received the form. "We don't know if the soldiers are working for the country or for a political party. Trust needs to be built step by step."

Saddam Hussein built this enclave of palatial, sand-colored houses and manicured lawns for his military officers. Later it grew to include a highly educated class of civil servants, professors, and businessmen. Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Christians lived side by side; many intermarried.

But after the February 2006 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, sectarian rifts split the community. Sunnis and Shi'ites alike tried their best to remain invisible or fled their homes. American troops, once hated here as occupiers, were trusted more by many residents than the mostly Shi'ite Iraqi security forces.

Unlike in other parts of Baghdad, neighbors did not fight each other. Armed gangs of Sunnis and Shi'ites from outside the area perpetrated the killings and kidnappings.

When US and Iraqi forces launched offensives against those armed groups last year, Zayouna was among the first enclaves to see improvements in security. Today, blast walls and concrete barriers block most roads into the neighborhood, and Iraqi soldiers and police officers staff checkpoints and conduct patrols.

Once-shuttered stores now stay open late, and fashionably dressed women walk alone. Residents who for years remained locked inside their homes wash cars in driveways, water lawns, and socialize with neighbors without regard to sect or religion.

"We don't have any problems with each other," said Ammar Muhammed, 35, a Sunni pharmacist. "It is the strangers who brought the sectarian problems."

Last month, two Iraqi soldiers knocked on the door of Abu Rabab, a 61-year-old retired government employee and a Sunni, and handed him the white form. It bore no official emblem or signature from a government ministry. The soldiers told him they needed his personal information for statistical purposes.

Abu Rabab was suspicious. He didn't know the soldiers. The memories rushed back. Last year, gunmen disguised in security force uniforms kidnapped his brother and demanded a $100,000 ransom. Abu Rabab's family paid. But the kidnappers tortured and killed his brother, anyway. So he took the form and, after the soldiers left, tore it up.

Muhammed Saad, 23, had no problem with the forms. He said he had complete trust in the Iraqi security forces. Saad is a Shi'ite.

Inside a tan building behind blast walls, Major Raad al-Kaisi, the commander of the 43rd Brigade, 1st Battalion sat next to a stack of filled-out forms. Over the past three weeks, his soldiers had handed out nearly 7,000 of them. No more than 200 came back.

The purpose of the forms, he said, was only to check residents' names using deeds or rental agreements to identify and evict squatters. But some officers suggested a sectarian motive.

"Why do we ask for the tribal name?" said Abu Hassan, 34, a Shi'ite military intelligence officer. "A lot of Shi'ite families have been displaced from their houses in Zayouna. We can evaluate how many Shi'ites have returned."

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