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Iraq's Sunni-Shiite Families Fear Renewed Sectarian Violence

Iraq’s estimated 2 million mixed Sunni-Shiite families are worried that renewed sectarian violence could have a devastating effect on their daily lives, writes Bushra Al Mudhafar.
Sunni Muslims shout slogans during an anti-government demonstration in Falluja, 50 km (31 miles) west of Baghdad, March 15, 2013. Thousands of Sunni Muslims protested after Friday prayers in huge rallies against Shi'ite Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, demanding that he step down. The signs read, "We are coming, Baghdad".                        REUTERS/Mohanned Faisal (IRAQ - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3F11P

The signs of anticipation take shape upon her face as 26-year-old Alia feels her heart begin to race with anxiety. She stands in front of the television watching a speech by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from March 7 on the occasion of International Women’s Day. She listens to him say “sectarian war is at the gates, and it won’t spare anyone this time.” Iraq is undergoing a state of instability, and danger is creeping toward the country, he added.

Alia lives with her husband in the Sunni-majority region of al-Amiriyyah, adjacent to al-Karakh in Baghdad. She had not finished listening to Maliki’s speech when the memories of the sectarian violence she and her family had endured from 2006 to 2008 came flooding back. Alia says that “for many long months I was unable to see my sick, bed-ridden father or my brothers. They’re Shiites, and live on Palestine Street on the al-Risafah side [the other half of Baghdad].”

She adds: “Even after the sectarian violence started to decrease, communicating with my family is still very nerve-wracking for me.”

The path Alia takes to visit her family is not devoid of strangeness. As she puts it, “My husband has to take me to the region of Bab al-Muazzim (north-central Baghdad, considered one of the links connecting the regions of al-Amiriyyah and Palestine street). Then my brother comes to accompany me the rest of the way to my family’s house; the trip back is much the same.”

“I hope the sectarian violence doesn’t come back to my country,” she adds. “I want to keep in touch with my family just like normal. We’re tired of the fear, we’re tired of the anxiety.”

Between 2006 and 2008, Iraq witnessed a brutal sectarian civil war that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis, beginning after the attacks on the Al-Askari tomb in Samara, a sacred shrine to the country’s Shiites. An organized operation to bomb the site in February 2006 lit the fuse of sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. Baghdad played host to acts of ethnic cleansing that contributed to the subsequent reorganization of some of the city’s districts along sectarian lines. As part of this process, thousands of Iraqi families were displaced and forced to flee to areas where their sect was a majority.

The British newspaper The Guardian warned in one of its editorials about the possibility of a renewed escalation of sectarian violence and a deterioration in the political situation. All this must be considered in light of recent events in Iraq. The British newspaper believes that “the situation of sectarian violence began already last December, when demonstrations escalated in protest against the Maliki government’s sectarian tendencies. Since then, Iraq has witnessed a rising tide of demands for reform, improvement of services, release of prisoners, and the nullification of the de-Baathification laws. Many Sunnis have also demanded Maliki’s resignation, and accused him of sectarian discrimination and oppressing the Sunnis of Iraq.”

These and other warnings remind Alia’s family — and the other Iraqi families who lived two years outside conventional sectarian categories — of all the fear and anxiety they felt in the past regarding any scenario of violence. They have endured this situation, having been forced to pay the price for being divided among themselves, for not fitting into neat sectarian criteria.

Abu Muhammad, a 52-year-old resident of the Shiite-majority al-Iskan region, said: “My daughter is married to a Sunni cousin of hers who lives in Fallujah. I couldn’t see her for more than two years, as she couldn’t leave the city.” Reaching Fallujah, according to Abu Muhammad, “was extremely difficult. Impossible, even. Even for my daughter, it was extremely difficult to travel to Baghdad … I just hope that she isn’t kept from me again.”

The effects this sectarian violence had upon Iraq’s social fabric was no less severe. Ahmad al-Dulaymi is a young man living in the modern Sunni neighborhood of al-Jamiah. He does not hope for a return to the sectarian butchery that kept him from his girlfriend who lives in the Shiite-majority al-Ilam neighborhood, nor does he think such a return is likely. As he puts it, “My girlfriend’s mother refused to allow me to marry her daughter, because it would mean she’d have to live with me in the al-Jamiah neighborhood, and then my girlfriend’s family and siblings would never be able to visit her.”

The Iraqi government estimates that more than two million Iraqi families are based upon a Sunni-Shiite mixed marriage. Iraq is estimated to have more than 6.5 million families.

But the repercussions of the civil war and its image upon the reality of an Iraqi society sharply divided along regional lines — thanks to campaigns of expulsion and killing — have had a host of negative effects. But it has not been translated into a reality on the ground.

The social fabric of the Shiite al-Kurayat region is intertwined with that of the Sunni Saba Abkar neighborhood. Alaa al-Barazani, who lives in al-Kurayat, did not realize that in 2007, when he prevented a few gunmen from expelling his Sunni neighbor Abu Umar, it would constitute a “mistake” and that he would someday be forced to pay the price. And that the wedding of Israa — a university instructor in Sadr City, whose father and brothers insisted that she marry her Sunni colleague during the height of the sectarian violence — would be but the symbol through which Israa’s family responded to all those who would seek to fire a bullet of mercy against those Iraqi families that persisted in preserving their social framework despite sectarian ruin.

Bushra Al Mudhafar is a writer and journalist from Baghdad working in both Iraqi and Arab media. After working as a broadcast journalist for an international TV station, she now works for a local channel. She has also worked for international organizations including IWPR, and has published political reports in a variety of media.

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