ARBIL - Hanan's family could never have thought three years ago of leaving Baghdad. They had lived for years in peace with their Shia neighbours in the ethnically mixed Shaab district. All that changed the morning they saw a letter in their courtyard giving them three days to leave.
Hanan left for Arbil with her five children 10 days ago. Arbil is in Kurdistan, where peace prevails, unlike the rest of Iraq.
"It is very dangerous over there in Baghdad," Hanan, 40, told IPS. "It is a war of streets between Shias and Sunnis there. Nobody can feel safe."
In Salahaddin town now, 29km east of Arbil, she feels safe. They live in the house of a Kurdish friend, since they cannot afford to pay rent, and no one in the family has a job.
Her husband has not joined the family. Hanan says he cannot drive his taxi from Baghdad to Arbil because his identity card shows he is Sunni, and the road is too dangerous for Sunnis.
Her 20-year-old daughter Nariman quit school and cannot go back even to receive her exam results. "I don't feel safe returning to Baghdad any more. I want to stay here in Arbil."
Hundreds of thousands of other families have had to deal with a similar situation in the ethnically mixed cities of central Iraq where Shia militias and Sunni armed men are at war with one another.
Like Hanan, many hit by the violence seek refuge in the northern Kurdistan region. According to official figures provided by humanitarian organisations and the Kurdistan regional government, around 6,000 families have moved from volatile regions of Iraq to the three provinces of the Kurdish region between 2004 and this month.
The sectarian strife escalated after the blasts in the Shia holy shrines of Samarra, 125km north of Baghdad, in February this year. Shias have blamed Sunnis for the attack.
The killings continue, mostly between Sunni and Shia. Iraqis officials say 3,438 civilians lost their lives in violent incidents in July, an average of 110 killings a day.
Many fear it could get much worse if Iraq falls into full-scale civil war. People fear that such violence could expand to other regions and drag in other ethnic and sectarian groups.
"The fighting can engulf five regions which have mixed ethnic and sectarian populations," Farid Assasad, head of the Kurdistan Strategic Studies Centre in Suleimaniya in Kurdistan region told IPS. Those areas, he said, include Baghdad, Kirkuk, Diyala province, Salahaddin province and parts of Anbar province.
Each of these areas has its own kind of mix. Kirkuk is located 250km north of Baghdad, and has a mixed population of Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs. Diyala province is 50km northeast of Baghdad, and home to mixed Sunni Arab, Shia Arab and Kurdish populations.
Salahaddin, 140km northwest of Baghdad, has a population of Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman communities. Anbar province, 100km west of Baghdad, has a mix of Sunni and Shia populations.
"Iraq is not yet in a state of civil war," Assasad said. "But if the current tensions are not curtailed, they can lead to a destructive civil war."
The current turmoil is not something new in Iraq's history, he said. "It is rather a historical extension of some past hostilities that have existed among Shias and Sunnis of Iraq ever since the death of Shia-revered Imam Ali, 1400 years ago."
The schism between Shia and Sunni branches of Islam emerged over a successor to Prophet Muhammad following his death in 632AD. Shias believe Imam Ali was recommended by the Prophet to replace him, a belief Sunnis do not share.
Assasad is optimistic that there are still "hopes and ways" to prevent the much-predicted civil war.
"The fact that none of the Shias and Sunnis can achieve a decisive and final victory over the other side can lessen the likelihood of a civil war," he said.
"Besides, a tactical solution at this stage is the creation of separate regions for each of the three major communities of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds within a federal structure that puts each sect in charge of its own security and governance."
A. Ahmed, 45 (he did not want to give his full name), a Sunni Arab university professor, who has witnessed the violence closely, says civil war is here already.
"I left my house because of the civil war," said Ahmed who now teaches science at Koya University, 79km east of Arbil. "The only difference between the current situation and a real full-blown civil war is that heavy weaponry is not being used."
Copyright © 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service