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The Plain Dealer (Ohio)

Gruesome Ethnic Sorting Focuses on Baghdad's Sunnis

Elizabeth Sullivan

Dr. Rafal Badri had heard the stories of displacement and murder before: A family member executed at a Baghdad checkpoint because his last name was recognizably Sunni. Friends and relatives forced to move, to flee to Amman or Damascus or to other parts of Baghdad, harried from their longtime homes because of sectarian identities few considered important just a few years ago. Families rent asunder by those same divisions.

But the Cleveland doctor said "the story never hit home as strong with me, as much as it did" three weeks ago, when he learned of the gruesome fate of one of his best friends from childhood, a Sunni man who was abducted from his home with his two eldest sons.

Sabah Abboud al-Naimi was an apolitical military officer from a Sunni tribal family famed for its orange groves north of Baghdad.

But this summer, he and two sons were snatched from their home in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad. In front of the younger boy, the father and brother were tortured and then murdered.

This was neither random violence nor murder for gain, said Badri, who left Iraq about 25 years ago, when he was 29.

Instead, al-Naimi and his son were executed solely to broadcast a sectarian warning to other Sunnis to vacate their homes in the Shaab neighborhood in northeast Baghdad.

"The son was sent back home with the message that, You people do not belong in this neighborhood, and you are going to serve as the messenger to tell everybody, in advance, that if they don't leave, they will deserve similar fate.' "

Badri believes the message was heard by other Sunnis, who packed up and left.

The al-Naimi murders didn't make it onto the news in Baghdad or the West. But the killings duly took their place among the many assassinations well known to the families, friends and neighbors of the victims.

"There are hundreds of crimes worse than that," said Moayed Kalaf, of Solon, a retired civil engineering professor who also knew al-Naimi in Iraq.

Although the perpetrators of this murder never were identified or caught, Kalaf believes al-Naimi and his oldest son were executed by one of the major Iranian-backed Shiite militias that control most Baghdad neighborhoods.

"It seems it's a common thing now -- a standard thing now," said Kalaf. "Nobody cares."

Except that, Badri, Kalaf and other Iraqi Sunni émigrés in the Cleveland area care very much.

They, and many of the Sunnis remaining in Baghdad, worry that the deaths signal a coming bloodbath among minority Sunni Arabs now bearing the brunt of ethnic cleansing throughout Baghdad. They perceive the nation's weak, Shiite-led government as deeply hostile to Sunni ethnic interests and unwilling to rein in the death squads.

The signs of trouble extend beyond the killings of a few men.

Refugee groups report that the pace of displacement in Baghdad is accelerating, even as the U.S. troop "surge" tamps down violence in some neighborhoods. That displacement is heavily weighted against Sunnis, who are crowded into smaller and smaller sections of town.

In mid-August, Adnan al-Dulaimi, a leading moderate who heads the largest Sunni bloc in the Iraqi parliament, issued an impassioned appeal to other Arab countries to stop what he called a "genocide" against the capital's Sunnis.

In an e-mail to the Associated Press, and later in a news conference at his home in the Adil neighborhood of west Baghdad, al-Dulaimi accused Iran of arming the Shiite militias that daily lob mortars into his and other Sunni districts throughout western Baghdad. He called it a campaign "to eradicate the Sunnis."

U.S. forces appear equally alarmed. The U.S. military started its surge in Baghdad last spring largely aiming to fight Sunni insurgents in the capital's hard-line Sunni neighborhoods. But soon U.S. troops were building walls and barricades around Sunni and some Shiite enclaves.

More recently, U.S. forces also began paying newly minted Sunni militias, complete with snappy uniforms and patches, although the militiamen bring their own guns, to patrol their enclaves' streets.

U.S. officers deny that their Safe Neighborhoods Initiative has a sectarian cast. Yet they've also quietly switched their emphasis from going after Sunni extremists to primarily targeting Shiite militias. These militias, tied to a number of Shiite politicians and believed armed from Iran, operate with impunity in mixed neighborhoods, expelling Sunnis as part of a racket to seize apartments, property and other assets.

Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, told the Associated Press last month that 73 percent of the most serious anti-U.S. attacks in Baghdad in July -- those that either wounded or killed U.S. forces -- were carried out by such Iranian-backed militias.

A team of reporters from the New York Times that fanned out into 20 Baghdad neighborhoods concluded that "mixed neighborhoods are sliding toward extinction."

At least 35,000 Baghdad residents have fled their homes since the surge began, the Times reported, citing aid groups' estimates.

The latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq identified this cleansing as one possible cause of a drop in interethnic Baghdad violence: There simply are fewer neighbors of the opposite sectarian group to kill.

But Cleveland's Sunni émigrés warn that any such numbers are suspect.

"One morning in the area where my [relative] lives, there were 12 bodies," said one Sunni professional who didn't want his name used for fear of retribution against family members in Baghdad. "When it was on the news, it was reported as six bodies only, and this is only a small area in Baghdad, like Solon in Cleveland."

One murder that did get wide attention in the West was that of an eminent London-trained immunologist who had been on a sabbatical in Australia. In late March, he returned to Baghdad, hoping to see his baby son, born during the six months he was overseas.

But Dr. Khalid al-Naib was betrayed after stopping at Baghdad University.

While trying to reach his Shiite wife across town, he was waylaid by Shiite gunmen, "shot and thrown in a Dumpster," said one of his friends, Dr. Riadh Almudallal, of Solon.

"He didn't even have a chance to see his son."

Such developments feed deep-seated Sunni fears that "Persians" within Iraq's Shiite community are being used to impose Iranian dominion over Iraq.

Yet in a pattern eerily reminiscent of the degradation of Sarajevo's civil society, Shiites, too, now imagine Iraq's Sunnis in league with outside enemies. Even the language of Iraq is changing, with new phrases that refer to the ethnic cleansing and sectarian retribution.

Fears rise like a viper and entwine with ancient grievances, so that the unmixing of a once-mixed population now has a momentum all its own.

"My two brothers are married to Shiite girls. My sister is married to a Shiite gentleman. And we never thought there was a difference, because all of them, they have the same prophet, the same Koran," said the Sunni professional who didn't want his name used.

"You know the herd instinct," he added. "If a leader can attract the feelings and emotions of the masses, he can send them to hell, and that is what is happening in Iraq, exactly."

"I can't see, in the near future, any light," he went on. "It is a cave full of darkness, as long as this government is there."

Badri says he doesn't blame U.S. forces for lifting the lid off a cauldron of hate that existed prior to the Americans' arrival. But he and other local Iraqi Sunnis believe that America -- and the rest of the world -- now have a moral obligation to protect Baghdad's threatened Sunnis from possible annihilation.

Regretfully, he said, that could include partition.

"Nobody would have ever thought that Iraq can be divided, or there are people that are willing to divide Iraq as much as they are now," said Badri. "But if division occurs, it is in the name of preserving precious life. Nobody needs to die, neither Iraqis nor Americans. And if division -- which I am totally against -- is going to help save lives, then [so] be it."

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. To reach Elizabeth Sullivan:, 216-999-6153

© 2007 The Plain Dealer

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