Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire Across Iraq

Wiam Mohammed, a 32-year-old Sunni Arab car painter, fled here from the mostly Shiite city of Basra in May, hoping to find a more peaceful place. But he found there may not be anywhere safe in Iraq, not really.

Mohammed had sought a place with fewer bombings and a life free from the men with guns who killed at least 36 people around the country, including one U.S. serviceperson, on Tuesday.

Instead he found more trouble, and has begun moving back to his hometown in what has become a dance of displacement among Iraqis scuttling around the country in search of havens.

In November, Mohammed was wounded in the head in Basra and spent two weeks in the hospital recovering. Although his attackers were arrested, Mohammed worried that he was still not safe.


“When security deteriorated in Basra, and any Sunni became a target, I was in a bad situation,” he said.

“My life was in danger so I decided to go to Mosul.”

The U.S. military says violence in Iraq is concentrated in Baghdad, but statistics show that it has roiled the whole country. On Tuesday, the Ministry of Displaced People and Migrants announced that sectarian violence had displaced more than 27,000 families, about 135,000 people, up from 100,000 in June. The ministry said it was beginning an initiative to build tent camps in Mosul, Baghdad and nine other locations.

Six weeks ago, Sunni families began fleeing Basra in large numbers, many headed for Mosul and the promise of jobs and security.


But residents and officials say such moves may be subsiding, with many of the displaced people unable to find work in Mosul and frightened by an upsurge in daily bombings and slayings.

Iraqi officials say a British crackdown on militias in Basra has restored a measure of stability. Many of the families that fled north are returning as quickly as possible, according to Basra officials.

“I couldn’t find a job and I have a family to support,” Mohammed said.

“I kept in contact with Basra and when I heard the situation was better, I decided to go back to my normal life.”

Basra and Mosul are two of Iraq’s biggest cities. Basra is a mostly Shiite oil town in the south. Mosul, in the north, is divided between Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Once viewed as one of the calmer cities in Iraq, Basra saw an upsurge in violence late last year. The rate of killings began climbing, and fights between the police and local Shiite militias intensified. The British, who had been praised for their ability to keep the area calm, came under criticism for letting the violence get out of hand.

After the February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a Shiite shrine, the wave of ethnic strife that gripped much of Iraq spread to Basra. Shiite fighters told Sunni Arab families to leave Basra or be killed. But Sunnis who left said the flight was also spurred by their own clerics who urged them to leave for their safety. The religious leaders worried that armed groups such as the Al Mahdi militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr were intent on killing Sunnis who did not flee their homes.

The Ministry of Displaced People said Tuesday that sectarian violence had displaced 1,040 families from Basra. Mosul aid organizations put the number of people fleeing Basra even higher.


The Islamic Human Rights Assn. in Mosul has helped 316 Basra families relocate to the northern city in the last six weeks, said Wisam Sadi, a lawyer with the association.

“Most of the families are displaced because of security threats,” Sadi said. “Some of them are scared because family members have been assassinated, some are afraid because they have relatives who are not allowed to leave Basra.”

But once in Mosul, many of the Basra families are finding life even worse. With jobs in short supply, most people have had to live on humanitarian aid, Sadi said.

Mohammed, the Sunni who fled Basra, said he had rented a house in Mosul, but that he could not find work.

“I don’t know any profession but car painting,” he said. “I did not find any job in Mosul and I got tired of asking.”

Although Mosul seemed safe at first, a series of bombings in July shook his faith in the city. On Tuesday, a roadside bomb went off near a police patrol, injuring three officers and a civilian. In the afternoon, a suicide car bomb exploded near an American patrol, injuring nine people. There were also at least two confrontations between police and armed groups in the city, which left one officer dead and three more injured.

Although most of the bombings have targeted the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces, slayings of civilians are on the rise, and average residents are increasingly being blackmailed and threatened with death.

“Assassinations and blackmailing have increased at a dramatic rate,” said Falah Nassir, a 35-year-old Mosul lawyer. “About 30% of Mosul families are being blackmailed every day. This is abnormal.”


Longtime Mosul residents and newcomers have been robbed or threatened by thugs.

Fakhri Ismael, a 40-year-old schoolteacher, was accosted by a group of armed men who stole his car last week.

“This was not enough for them,” Ismael said.

“Two days later they called me demanding I give them $10,000 and said if I don’t pay them they will kill me. Despicable blackmailing is taking place every day.”

In Basra, residents say they are seeing the first Sunni families return to their homes. While the city cannot be considered safe -- two Sunni former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party were assassinated Tuesday, for example -- sectarian strife appears to be calming as the British military has managed to curb militia activity.

Faaiz Rifaee’s brother Waleed left for Mosul a month ago. “I decided to stay and thank God it is much calmer now,” said Rifaee, a 52-year-old Sunni. “I hope it stays like this.”

Residents like Rifaee credit a new willingness by the British forces that oversee Basra to confront armed Shiite groups and detain their members.

“This has, in my opinion, reduced the sectarian violence,” Rifaee said. “There is now someone who is watching those gunmen.”

British officials are cautious. A spokesman noted that there was continued unrest in the area, but acknowledged that senior Basra politicians had said the security situation was improving.

British soldiers have captured some of the Al Mahdi militia’s leaders, apparently hampering the group’s ability to operate.

In Baghdad, military officials said this week that they were beginning a crackdown on “death squads.” The effort appears to be an attempt to address sectarian violence in the capital. In a predawn raid Tuesday, an Iraqi army unit, accompanied by American advisors, captured six men who U.S. officials said were suspected of being involved in a “death squad.”

Still, Baghdad is a far larger and more integrated city than Basra, and stopping sectarian violence in the capital poses a massive challenge. On Tuesday, explosions and shooting killed at least three government officials.

Hussein Athab, a former member of parliament and university professor, said he was pessimistic about the future of Iraq. But he said that the unrest of the last few months in Basra had begun to calm down.

“In the last two or three days, we have noticed many Sunni families have come back,” Athab said.

“I live in a mixed neighborhood, and there are families that are thinking of coming back.”

And Mohammed, the car painter, has resumed his old job at his shop.

Special correspondent Zarary reported from Mosul and Times staff writer Barnes from Baghdad. Times staff writer Shamil Aziz in Baghdad and a special correspondent near Basra contributed to this report.