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Iraqi capital's bonds ripped apart by war

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD, Iraq --After centuries of vibrant interaction, of marrying, sharing and selling across sects and classes, Baghdad has become a capital of corrosive, violent borderlines. Streets never crossed. Conversations never broached. Doors never entered.

Sunnis and Shiites in many professions now interact almost exclusively with colleagues of the same sect. Sunnis say they are afraid to visit hospitals because Shiites loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr run the Health Ministry, while Shiite laborers who used to climb into the back of pickup trucks for work across the Tigris River in Sunni western Baghdad now take jobs only near home.

The goal of the new Baghdad security plan is to fix all of this - to fashion a peace that stitches the city's cleaved neighborhoods back together. And three weeks into the effort, there are a few signs of progress. The number of bodies found daily across the capital has decreased to 20 or fewer from previous totals of 35 to 50. In some areas closely patrolled by American troops, a few of the families that fled the violence are said to be returning to their homes.

But even in the neighborhoods that are improving or are relatively calm, borders loom everywhere. Streets once crossed without a thought in Baghdad are now bullet-riddled and abandoned danger zones, the front lines of a block-by-block war among Shiite militias, Sunni insurgents, competing criminal gangs and Iraqi and American troops.

Some Americans who have been in both Bosnia and Iraq say Baghdad is increasingly looking like Sarajevo in the 1990s, latticed with boundaries that are never openly indicated but are passed on in fearful whispers among neighbors who have suffered horrific losses.

Like jagged wounds, the boundaries mark histories of brutal violence. And for Iraqis, they underscore a vital question at the heart of the new plan: Can scarred neighborhoods ever heal?

Forsaken street

Sybaa Street used to be wall-to-wall people: Sidewalks were crammed with shoppers, and roads were snarled with cars as horns honked. In the heart of central Baghdad, Sybaa was known as the road to get from the automotive shops on one side of the city's market district to the hardware stores on the other.

Back then - as recently as two years ago, residents said - no one seemed to care that it was the border between the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil and the largely Shiite areas to the south, Sadriya and Sheik Omar.

But that has all changed. After six months of fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, Sybaa Street is deserted and forsaken. On a recent afternoon, the only sign of life was a lone mechanic working inside a dark garage, his efforts lighted by a single bulb. Bullets from earlier battles punctured nearly everything - buildings, utility poles, even rusted mufflers hanging outside shuttered shops.

Um Shaima, 48, a garrulous Sunni widow who used to sell yogurt in the Sadriya market, lives just north of Sybaa Street in Fadhil. She said she used to visit the stores there to buy clothes. Her cousin Samir worked for years on the Sadriya side of Sybaa Street as a mechanic without any trouble.

Then a few months ago, Shaima said, he received a threat. "They told him, 'You are a Sunni, and all Sunnis are infidels and their women are prostitutes, so stop coming to Sadriya, or you will be killed,'" she said.

"He didn't listen," she added.

The next day, he was kidnapped. Witnesses said Shiite militants yanked him off his motorcycle and threw him in the trunk of a sedan.

"They called his wife at 9 a.m. the next day," Shaima said, "telling her that they will kill all the Sunnis, and your husband is dead."

A Shiite nephew of Samir's later recovered his uncle's mutilated body from a trash pile east of Baghdad.

Shaima said her two sons began to carry guns at night to protect her and her neighbors.

On the other side of the border, in Sadriya, lies a mirror image of anger and fear. The response is similar, too: young men with guns who view themselves as protectors, who justify violence as the reasonable response to violence.

Nazar Sharif Abd Hussein, 35, a carpenter and a self-described militant with the Mahdi Army militia, said he did not hate all Sunnis; one of his sisters who lives outside of Baghdad just married one.

In a recent interview, Hussein hardly looked fierce, at 5 feet, 7 inches tall, wearing jeans and a gray sweater, with a short beard and sunken dark eyes. But he said he could be vicious when called upon because Sunni gangsters and insurgents in Fadhil had shown no respect for life.

Last May, he said, his 17-year-old best friend, Salar, was shot dead while they both guarded an area near the edge of Fadhil. He said that Salar was wearing a flak jacket but that a stream of .50-caliber bullets perforated his side and ripped through his chest.

"I still remember that night," Hussein said, adding, "He was standing in the middle of the street."

Whom to trust?

Baghdad's relentless violence has also created a deeper divide that might prove equally hard to eliminate: the line between the known and the stranger.

As the unfamiliar has become the dangerous, Iraqis have developed elaborate disguises to help them pass as members of the other sect: ruses such as adopting identification cards with false family names or developing elaborate fictional histories.

Even then, being a member of the same sect or a relative is no guarantee of safety in a city, Iraqis say, where Shiites have killed Shiites and Sunnis have killed Sunnis out of frightened uncertainty about whom to trust.

Ali Abu Zainab, 50, a mechanic and a journalist, said the border between his neighborhood of Saydia and Dora had left him and his three young daughters isolated, cut off from his extended family. Both neighborhoods have historically been populated by a mixture of Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. But because Dora has been a battleground for various militant groups for at least a year, he said, crossing over is impossible.

The Hilla highway, a wide road heading south that separates the two areas, and the Dora highway - the main road into the neighborhood of the same name - have become battle zones, empty except for gunmen. A relative who was forced to drive down the Dora highway three months ago because of a surprise checkpoint saw bodies littering the streets, Zainab said.

So even though his favorite aunts and cousins in Dora live less than two miles away, he has been unable to visit for more than a year. In the fall, he said, he missed a cousin's wedding at his aunt's house. After another cousin was killed by Shiite militants, Zainab was unable to attend the funeral.

"I used to go frequently to Dora just like everyone else in Saydia," he said.

Now, he shops near his home. When he leaves, he exits from the opposite side of the neighborhood. Still, the border's dangers seep in. Because Saydia has remained less violent than Dora, fewer residents have fled, and security is not as tight. Fighters pushed out of Dora consider Saydia a good place to hide because they can blend in with civilians.

Oprah kills the time

Some Iraqis draw the border at their own doorsteps.

Saadi Khazaal Jawad, 60, a Shiite former government worker and restaurateur, said his neighborhood was so dangerous that he had become a virtual shut-in. He lives in Chikuk, a mixed area squeezed among the Sunni neighborhood of Huriya to the south, Shiite Kadhimiya to the east and Shuala to the west.

As Shiites from the north and east have begun expanding their turf into Chikuk, Sunnis from Huriya have been fighting back, making every corner here a potential danger zone.

Jawad has a Chevrolet Caprice that he almost never drives. He has two daughters and four sons whom he tries to keep home. He has forbidden his 16-year-old daughter from going to school.

On most days, Jawad said, he prays, eats, takes naps, reads Iraqi newspapers and watches television. He watches the news, Oprah Winfrey's show and a Rachael Ray food program.

He also escapes with his birds, a gaggle of passenger pigeons in cages on his roof. The birds come from places he used to visit on vacations, such as Mosul and Basra. They offer a way, he said, to flee.

"I spend about two or three hours here," he said as he fed the birds. "I forget everything when I'm here. And besides, I can't go anywhere. It's dangerous to go out."

But even Jawad has not lost all hope; he said he was rooting for the Iraqi government's efforts to shore up security. And some residents in Fadhil and Sadriya said the recent Iraqi-American operation there had given a few friends enough confidence to return to work.

But they said it could take years for men such as Hussein, the Mahdi militant in Sadriya, to give up their weapons, and for residents to let go of their fears. With helicopters overhead every day and gunfire and explosions as regular as alarm clocks, Iraqis' sense of being trapped has yet to recede.

"I try to kill time," Jawad said. "We try to busy ourselves because when I have nothing to do, it makes time last longer."

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