Battle of Baghdad: Sectarian Divide Tearing Apart Families, Communities

A new US military map of Baghdad shows clearly drawn battle lines between warring Shiite and Sunni militias, who are now claiming vast areas of the city in their bid for territorial control and political power.

In what is shaping up to be the Battle of Baghdad, the Shiites are claiming all of the city to the east of the Tigris River, as well as areas on the west bank to the north and south of districts claimed by the Sunnis.

As militias transform hundreds of mixed neighborhoods into strictly Shiite or Sunni enclaves, the five most violent neighborhoods in Baghdad include the Sunni area of Ahdamiya in the north (turning Shiite), Khadamiya in the north-west (turning Shiite), Ghazaliya in the west (turning Sunni) and Amariya and Khadasiya in the south-west (both turning Sunni). The fortified Green Zone is located between the major areas of conflict and transition, in the center of Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris River.

The map also highlights current flashpoints, three of which are in historically Shiite neighborhoods near Khadamiya in north-western Baghdad, sitting directly on the border between opposing Shiite and Sunni forces. On the east bank, the other four flashpoints extend south from Ahdamiya through mixed neighborhoods in Shiite territory, but stop short of four Christian communities in the city’s south-east.

Many neighborhoods in Baghdad have taken on the appearance of makeshift fortresses, and residents claim that the city now feels like a ghost town. Homes, schools and shops are shuttered and local roads are barricaded with building materials and burnt out cars. Militias patrol an increasing number of checkpoints. Throughout the city, there is limited pedestrian traffic during the day, and only armed militia men walk the streets at night.Residents who have found themselves in the minority in their neighborhoods have been threatened, assaulted, kidnapped or killed by militias in broad daylight. There are reports of teachers being dragged from classrooms pleading for their lives. This has forced many residents to move their families to ‘safer’ areas of Baghdad, other parts of Iraq or even neighboring countries.

The sustained violence and displacement is being fuelled by militias with political connections in the Iraqi parliament: on the Shiite side is the Sadrist Mahdi Armi and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI); on the Sunni side is the Islamic Party and the Muslim Scholars Association.Overall, the exodus of refugees from Iraq now stands at 1.5 million. The UN estimates that 3,000 people are leaving Iraq every day, including a substantial number of the country’s professional and skilled classes. Most insist they do not want to return to Iraq. Among these refugees are 120,000 Christians, most of whom say they want to resettle in the US.

The sheer scale of the refugee crisis has called into question the US policy which accommodates only 500 refugees from Iraq next year. As a historical comparison, the US took in 823,000 refugees as ‘boat people’ in the wake of the Vietnam War. Currently, even the Iraqi refugees who have officially requested resettlement in the US have been caught in a tug-of-war between the US State Department and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who has not yet determined their status.

As the Battle of Baghdad gains momentum against the backdrop of civil war in Iraq, so will the refugee crisis continue to escalate. In the coming months, this will no doubt raise additional issues concerning US responsibilities associated with the war in Iraq.

Source: The Times (London)

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