Southern Iraq Swept by Sectarian Displacement

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Iraq’s Sunnis are being subjected to sectarian cleansing in Basra and other Shiite-dominated regions, while the authorities look on in silence.

Sectarian displacement carried out by armed militias to empty large regions of Basra from its native residents is escalating amid an eerie silence from Basra authorities and the federal government. Forced displacements, through threats, have targeted the al-Zubair District in particular and other regions in Abu al-Khaseeb.

On Sept. 15, the bodies of two brothers, owners of a grocery store, were found. Both were killed under torture after they had been kidnapped the day before in Basra as part of a series of sectarian killing and cleansing targeting Sunnis. Militias carry out the assassinations with the knowledge of local authorities and the federal government in Baghdad, which has been receiving regular reports about the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis to western Iraq and Gulf countries, leaving their houses and properties for fear of being assassinated.

The Sunni religious endowments authority decided to close all mosques in Basra and shorten adhan prayers. On Tuesday, Sept. 17, Basra’s tribes and prominent figures staged a demonstration against sectarian displacement. Political sources informed Azzaman that militias were carrying out killings against Sunnis in Basra, notably in mixed neighborhoods, for sectarian cleansing purposes. Authorities did not announce the number of those who had been killed. Sources, however, told Azzaman that killings were a daily occurrence in Basra and sometimes targeted entire families. The previous week, two Sunni parents with their three daughters had been found dead, the same sources noted.

The sources explained that sectarian killing and cleansing in Basra had been preceded with notices that had been hung on the doors of Sunni mosques calling on Sunnis to leave the city within one week or face death. The historical district of al-Zubair, home for Sunnis for centuries, no longer has Sunnis living in it. Its residents moved to Gulf countries following death threats from militias, the sources clarified.

According to the same sources, more than 100 families from the Al-Saadun tribe, whose members have lived in southern Iraq for centuries, were forced to move from Basra and Nasiriyah to Tikrit due to threats.

Al-Saadun figures blame the chieftains of Basra and Nasiriyah’s tribes for remaining silent as they witness the atrocities committed right before their eyes. Sheikh Muzahim al-Kanaan al-Tamimi, head of the Tamim tribe and Basra governor during the US occupation following the toppling of the former regime, said that assassinations were targeting Sunnis in Basra. They are carried out by groups that are known to the authorities and ruling political parties. The latter, however — whether for political considerations or out of fear of these groups — are turning a blind eye and have done absolutely nothing to bring these crimes to a halt.

Fear reigns over residents in the Sunni-dominated town of Abu al-Khasseeb in the Hamdan region of southern Iraq, where a number of Sunnis were killed. The village of Mahzim in the Basra province is also living in terror. Some extremists are promoting the idea that Salafist ideology is rampant in this town, thus placing its residents on the assassination list. In Basra, Arab Sunnis and Shiites have lived side by side for centuries. Their peaceful societal life was never interrupted by violence or hatred between both sects.

This coexistence was translated into mixed marriages and shared businesses. Basra has become a symbol of peaceful coexistence between Iraqis. Khalaf Abdul Samad, head of the provincial council, told Azzaman that he knew nothing about the sectarian killings and displacement taking place in the city.

Samad referred Azzaman to Basra’s governor, Majed al-Nasrawi, since he is the head of security body, in an attempt to evade the questions. Naswari, however, did not answer Azzaman’s calls. Ahmad, who answered the phone of the governor’s secretary, said that the governor was not available and his secretary was in a meeting.

Samad presides over the provincial council, which comprises the governor and security officials. However, he said he knew nothing about sectarian killing and displacement. He insisted that he had no information about the number of victims or the statements of the director of the Sunni religious endowments authority about the assassinations of 12 Sunnis in the span of a few days.

“Killings are being carried out throughout Iraq, yet there is no sectarian liquidation or displacement of Sunnis in Basra,” Samad affirmed. The provincial council had dismissed the police chief following the worsening of security situation. Nevertheless, he refused to carry out the order due to political considerations and the political quota system. Sheikh Abdel Karim al-Khazraji, the Basra-based director of the Sunni religious endowments authority in the southern region, said that assassinations had escalated and 12 Sunnis had fallen victim to it within a period of four days, including a teacher and an imam.

“The assassinations in al-Khaseeb, al-Zubair and Basra aim at displacing Sunnis. Residents are receiving messages and phone calls from unidentified individuals, threatening them with death if they don’t leave the province,” Khazraji said.

Sunnis called on the authorities to protect mosques, reveal the perpetrators’ identity and conduct a serious investigation regarding the assassinations, whose last victim was Sheikh Abdel Karim Mustafa, imam of the Taqwa mosque. Unidentified armed individuals assassinated Mustafa on Tuesday [Sept. 10] after he left the mosque located in al-Mishraq al-Qadim, the center of Basra Province.

Sheikh Abdel Karim Khazraji called on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to intervene, and for local authorities in Basra to tighten their grip on the practically absent security in the province that provides Iraq with 85% of its federal budget.

Director of the Shiite religious endowments authority, Mohamed Abboud al-Matouri, denounced the campaigns targeting Sunni clerics in Basra. He noted that “groups, which are above religion and law, are targeting these figures to provoke sectarianism and push Basra back into civil war.”

Other religious and tribal figures in Basra also denounced the targeting of Sunni imams and clerics in the province, reiterating that the aim of these campaigns was to resuscitate sectarian violence. They also noted that eight Sunni families in al-Zubair had left their homes after receiving threats.

The targeting of Sunnis in Basra is a phenomenon that came along with the occupation. It traces back to 2006 when some Sunnis were compelled to use security guards at the doors of mosques in al-Zubair, Abu al-Khaseeb and other regions. This, however, did not prevent many assassinations from being carried out in Basra. In June 2006, Sheikh Yacoub al-Hassan, representative of the Association of Muslim Scholars in the southern region and a preacher at Basra Mosque, was assassinated while he was going from his home to the mosque to deliver the Friday sermon.

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