Sectarian Strife Reshaping Baghdad’s Neighborhoods

Times Staff Writer

The merchants were silent, their shops closed. A hush had fallen on the Jamiyat Shurta market. Earlier that morning, three bakers had been slain, shot silently as they prepared khubz, the popular pancake-like bread.

A few hours later, two gunmen crept up on a fishmonger at another market nearby, felling him with bullets before disappearing into the crowd.

Around the corner, assailants had gunned down a bicycle dealer and a university teacher in separate attacks earlier this week.

All the victims were Shiites living or working in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood.


On the streets of the capital, posters proclaim: “The constitution: Unity is from it, and hope is in it.”

But, as Iraqis prepare to vote on a new constitution Oct. 15, hope and unity are in short supply, with gunmen redrawing the map of this age-old city in blood.

An apparent campaign of sectarian killings is deepening the chasm between the country’s Shiite majority and Sunni Arab minority.

A wave of bombings in the last two days has killed at least 111 people in predominantly Shiite areas. On Friday, a car bomb exploded near a vegetable market in Hillah, south of Baghdad, killing at least eight people and wounding 41, police said.


In Balad, where three coordinated bombings struck merchants and shoppers Thursday evening, doctors worked nonstop to save the wounded, who numbered in the hundreds; by Friday, the death toll from that attack had reached 103. The town was targeted because it was predominantly Shiite, many residents say.

But Sunni Arabs, too, are complaining of abuses, including torture and assassinations, alleging that rogue Iraqi security forces or impostors routinely abduct and execute Sunni men. In the last couple of months, bodies have turned up in the Tigris River, a garbage dump and, this week, near a rail yard.

On Friday, in the capital’s Umm Qura Mosque, Sheik Ahmed Abdel Ghafour called on Sunnis to defend themselves against suspicious Iraqi troops. “It’s better for the Iraqi to be killed in his house than tortured, killed and thrown in the streets,” he said.

In Baghdad, as in the rest of Iraq, sectarian lines are hardening and residents are being forced out of their neighborhoods.

On Monday, insurgents dragged five Shiite teachers and their driver into a classroom in the village of Muelha, 30 miles south of Baghdad, and shot them to death.

Tuesday night, men in police uniforms came for seven Sunnis in the Hurriya neighborhood. Police discovered their bodies the next day, dumped near a railway line in Shula, a northwestern Baghdad district. The men had been blindfolded, handcuffed and shot execution-style.

In Dora, which stretches over 30 square miles on the southern rim of the capital, a systematic campaign of intimidation has changed the fabric of this once-diverse neighborhood, authorities say.

Jasim Hasan, a 63-year-old blacksmith, said three Shiite shopkeepers in his corner of Dora recently packed up and left. “We hear of two to three assassinations every week,” said Hasan, who has noticed the constant rumble of trucks moving furniture out of the neighborhood.


The twin stacks of the oil refinery cast a shadow over the middle-class neighborhood, where a large community of Assyrian Christians came to work when the plant was built by the British in the 1940s. On these streets, family trees intertwined, and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites lived, and prayed, side by side.

But last year, things started to change.

First the Christians fled, their churches destroyed by insurgents.

Now Shiites are fleeing, leaving homes and businesses empty. At least 150 families have left; storefronts are boarded up, the shutters drawn on once-lively markets. Moving trucks rumble past paper signs proclaiming the exodus in hastily scrawled letters: “For Rent.”

The Shiite departure has blighted the area. “My work this month will not cover the rent,” said Hassan, the blacksmith.

Police Capt. Sari Dulaimi, who is in charge of security in the neighborhood, said, “The attack on the bakery is another example of the violence that goes on in this area.” Recently, 10 barbers were killed, he said, “and it just goes on.”

With little money from the government, there’s only one fully operational police station to cover Dora.

The other station in the area has been “attacked so many times that it is now nearly nonfunctional,” Dulaimi said. “We rarely have police patrol units in Dora anymore.”


The U.S. troops assigned to the area have also come under heavy assault. Since Sept. 15, at least seven American service members have been killed.

When American and Iraqi security forces began crackdowns in other Baghdad neighborhoods this year, insurgents simply slipped into Dora, police said.

“A good number of Saddam’s followers used to live in these places, and once the insurgents ... joined them, Dora started to witness such incidents,” said police Capt. Khudayir Mohammed.

What makes the neighborhood attractive to insurgents, police say, is its size, proximity to central Baghdad, network of back roads leading to the so-called Sunni Triangle and an abundance of farms that can be used as rebel hide-outs.

Families are fleeing, he said, “running away from the war zone that Dora has become.”

As a consequence, house prices have plummeted.

“We, the brokers, have many more houses for rent or sale than we used to have,” said Naji Salam, a Dora real estate agent. Salam, 55, who had shopped at the bakery that was targeted Thursday, also planned to move away.

Broker Rasool Alazawi said he had more than 20 houses for sale and more than 30 to let, “but there is no one wanting to buy or rent.”

Houses that used to sell for more than $130,000 are selling for half that, he said. Wealthier neighborhoods are abandoned.

In a residential area near the market, a taxi driver siphoned fuel from his car to feed his small generator. Shopkeepers who had kept pictures of Shiite clerics in their stores had been killed recently, said the driver, who declined to give his name or religious affiliation because he feared retribution.

“Many residents of Dora have decided to move away,” he said, adding that some had gone to safer areas in Baghdad. Others, however, had taken even more drastic measures. “Our neighbors, who live behind our house, have already left Iraq.”