Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Some Respite for Displaced Sunni

Baghdad truce allows uprooted families, some of whom have been expelled several times, to return home.
By Shawkat al-Bayati
Khalid Mohammed Rashid has lived a life of uncertainty for more than two years.



Following the 2006 bombings of the Shia holy shrines in Samara, Rashid, a Sunni, his wife and their three children were expelled by Shia militias from their home in Baghdad’s Al-Amin neighbourhood and spent more than a year in a camp on the outskirts of Baghdad.



Rashid’s family returned to his neighbourhood in September 2007 as the security situation improved, but his good fortune didn’t last long. In April, Shia militants burst into the family’s home and told them to leave a second time because they weren’t Shia, he said.



When the police refused to help, Rashid’s family were again on the move, this time to a safer place in the Abu Ghraib neighbourhood in western Baghdad. One month later, when the government urged families to return to their neighbourhoods, Rashid, 52, abided by the call.



He said life is “pretty much back to normal” and hopes that this time he won’t be kicked out again.



Sunni families in Baghdad paid a price for the government’s crackdown last spring against Shia militias, which largely targeted Baghdad neighbourhoods controlled by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.



Sunnis living in Shia areas were subjected to a wave of expulsions – and, though their neighbourhoods have been relatively calm following a ceasefire agreement last month, they remain concerned that they could be pushed out again if security is not maintained.



Officials have registered more than 60 cases of families being displaced several times from neighbourhoods controlled by Shia militias in eastern Baghdad, including Al-Jadid, Mashtal, Al-Baladyat, Al-Amin and Sadr City, according to Tahseen Al-Sheikli, a government spokesman.



“All of the outlawed acts such as displacement, kidnappings, and assassinations are reactions to the military operations and raids that are carried out by the government against [militias],” said Hasim Hassan, dean of Baghdad University’s media department and a political analyst.



According to a January government report, 4,000 displaced families returned to Baghdad but only six to Sadr City between January 2007 and January 2008. Officials do not categorise these returnees by religion.



Abdullah Iskender, a member of parliament for the Sunni-led Independent Arab bloc, said the recent wave of displacement could pose a serious challenge to the government’s efforts to restore stability in Baghdad.



"The government must be more serious about the issue of the recent sectarian displacement,” he said



“Security officials must be held accountable for not fulfilling their duties of protecting the families who live in Baghdad areas that are controlled by outlaws.”



Rafid Kamil Mahjub, a 32-year-old Sunni, was ordered to leave his home in Al-Baladyat in late March, just a few days after mortars were fired at the Green Zone from the largely Shia neighbourhood. He returned in mid-May and said he is optimistic about the future.



“I thought that we would be displaced for a long time, but thanks to the government, the security has improved,” he said.



The families IWPR interviewed reported that they believed Sadr’s Mehdi Army had evicted them.



Ahmed Al-Massoudi, a leading member of the Sadrist movement, did not deny that Sunnis had been expelled, but said those responsible were not from his party.



“The accusations that Sadrists are responsible for displacing families are baseless,” he said.



Massoudi claimed Sadrists are determined to get rid of “outlaws who have used Mehdi Army as their shelter”.



Sofia Al-Suhail, a member of parliament from the secular Iraqia bloc, said the government must address immediately the problem of families who are repeatedly uprooted.



“It’s a dangerous problem that will determine whether there is rule of law or instability,” she said. “The government has to take serious measures to deal with it.”



A government official said the authorities had built two makeshift camps in the largely Shia eastern parts of Baghdad to accommodate families who flee their home because of instability. He said there were also plans to compensate them.



Abdul-Kareem Yassin, a parliament member on the Sunni-led Iraqi Accord Front, said ongoing military operations in Baghdad had neutralised a significant number of militants “who were responsible for displacing, assassinating and abducting people”.



But he also warned that the government has a long way to go before achieving security.



“The situation is still dangerous and fragile, and militants who act under the name of Mehdi Army can resume their criminal acts,” he said.



While Shia militias have reportedly been weakened by the American and Iraqi-led missions to root out militias, security remains unpredictable, agreed Hassan.



Recently, eleven people were killed when a bomb exploded during a district council meeting attended by United States and Iraqi officials in Sadr City.



“If the military operations and raids continue, we might see more families being displaced, especially in areas that are still under the control of the militias,” said Hassan.



Shawkat Al-Bayati is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.



More IWPR's Global Voices