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Iraqis Flee as Killings Increase

Sectarian violence triggers exodus
Story courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle
By Anna Badkhen

Baghdad -- First came the anonymous letters telling Shiite families to leave Abu Ghraib, a predominantly Sunni suburb on the western outskirts of Baghdad where the infamous prison is located. Soon after, checkpoints went up, manned by Sunni gunmen wearing black ski masks. Then, one April afternoon, Khadel al-Shimeri's nephews, two 18-year-olds who had been out looking for odd jobs, did not come home.

The next day, al-Shimeri's phone rang. The caller was using one of the nephews' cell phone. "You can pick up your delivery in Zeidan," a male voice said.

Zeidan had once been a farming area, partitioned into fields of sesame and wheat. Now it is a killing field.

When al-Shimeri got there, he saw about 50 bodies, some bearing marks of torture, in various stages of decomposition, scattered on desiccated soil. Al-Shimeri recognized his nephews' bodies easily, "because they were fresh," he said. Their hands were bound behind their backs. Their knees had been drilled through. Their chests had been burned. They had been shot through the head.

The next day, al-Shimeri, a 48-year-old Health Ministry employee, his wife and six children piled as many of their belongings as they could on a pickup and left his home of 20 years, joining the exodus of Iraqis fleeing sectarian violence across the country. Ten other families, all relatives of al-Shimeri, went with them.

"They target us because we are Shiite," said Fathul al-Shimeri, 28, one of the slain men's cousins and Khadel al-Shimeri's nephew, who has left Abu Ghraib.

It is hard to tell how many Iraqis have left their homes in the past three months, during which sectarian killings have reached new heights. Iraqi immigration officials estimate that between 90,000 and 100,000 families have been displaced, most of them since the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra, an event that set off the latest wave of violence.

In interviews with The Chronicle, dozens of Baghdad residents told stories of their neighbors, Sunnis and Shiites alike, leaving their homes to flee attacks by sectarian militias.

"There is a Sunni house," said Sheikh Mahmud al-Qubaisi, a Sunni tribal elder on a mixed Sunni-Shiite street in the Amariya neighborhood of western Baghdad, pointing to a large mansion decorated with pink marble. "Next to it is a Shia house. Both families got death threats about two months ago and left. The Shia family went south. The Sunni family went to Jordan."

Sunnis and Shiites flee

Many middle-class Sunnis are moving abroad, mainly to other Persian Gulf countries, Jordan and Syria. A Sunni woman, who still lives in the predominantly Sunni Jihad district, said a neighboring family "had to leave. They went to Saudi Arabia."

Poorer Shiite families, like the al-Shimeris, are moving to the Shiite marshlands in the south or to mainly Shiite eastern Baghdad. Some move in with other family members. Others are setting up tents in the slums of Sadr City, or squatting in abandoned buildings scattered throughout the capital.

The al-Shimeris have settled on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, in the bombed-out compound of the former Rashid Military Complex, scarred by U.S. aerial strikes during the initial invasion in 2003. Huge craters and giant piles of rubble mark the spots where U.S. planes obliterated the base's barracks.

The al-Shimeris' new home is a row of empty rooms on the first and second floors of a former military hospital. They sleep on straw mats thrown on the concrete floor, and on square wooden platforms. They tap into power lines running next to the complex, which gives them about four hours of electricity a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. They have running water, but their sewage pipes drain into a fetid pool directly underneath the building.

"Our situation is very bad," said Ali Ahmed al-Shimeri, 26, Fathul's brother and a former police officer who squats in the Rashid complex with his wife and daughter.

It could get worse.

None of the al-Shimeri men, all of whom had jobs in Abu Ghraib, has managed to find work in Baghdad. Government-issued coupons allowing them to get rations of rice, sugar and cooking oil are running out, and the families are not sure they will be able to get new coupons. There are no outside aid agencies to help them. Most Western relief organizations ceased operations in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003, when they became insurgent targets. Occasionally, soldiers from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, who patrol eastern Baghdad, stop by with bottled water.

Lt. John Madia, 25, a soldier with the 101st Airborne who visits the refugees regularly, worries that the Shiite families will not be allowed to stay at the Rashid complex for long. "It's all government property," said Madia, from Clarksville, Tenn. "There's just no one to kick them out now, but sooner or later it will happen, unfortunately."

During the day -- when the power is on -- the men watch the Saddam Hussein trial on a large TV al-Shimeri brought from his house, along with a stereo, a VCR and a large plastic wall clock.

Despite his situation, Khadel al-Shimeri has no regrets about the deposed tyrant.

"The best thing that happened to us is that we got rid of the dictatorship," he said.

'We will kill them'

But most of the time, when there is no electricity and they are reduced to sweating under unmoving ceiling fans in 110-degree heat, the al-Shimeris think of revenge for the recent murder of their loved ones.

"If we find any of them, we will kill them," said Ali Ahmed, Fathul's brother, who has hung a framed painting of the revered Shiite Imam Ali holding a drawn sword in the corner of his room.

"They must have come from Zeidan," he said. "All the people who live there are terrorists."

Through the bombed-out windows of his spartan room, Ali Ahmed can see the swift, green waters of the Tigris, lush date palm groves on the western bank, and the tall flame of gas burn-off from the Dora oil refinery, beyond the palm trees. Farther west, past the oil refinery and out of sight, is Abu Ghraib, where the al-Shimeris probably cannot return.

New tales of anti-Shiite violence there trickle into the Rashid complex daily, passed through a grapevine of relatives and friends.

"Yesterday, they killed three people -- a day laborer and two of his nephews," Fathul said Friday. "His tribal name was al-Saadi, we knew him as Abu Ahmed, we lived in his neighborhood."

"Two nights ago," al-Shimeri replied with his own horror story, "two bombs went off, one in a Shiite-owned restaurant, and another in a Shiite-owned cell phone shop. Thank God, it was night, and no one was hurt.

"If any of us goes back to Abu Ghraib, he will be killed," al-Shimeri said.

E-mail Anna Badkhen at abadkhen@sfchronicle.com.

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