The question was disturbing: Why do you live here?
Ahmed al-Azami, a Sunni Muslim, has owned a house in Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhood of Shaab since 1999. However, when Shiite residents recently began questioning why he, a Sunni, was living among them, he decided it was time to leave.
His story and similar tales by other Sunnis suggest Iraqis are again segregating themselves along sectarian lines, prompted by a political crisis pulling at the explosive Sunni-Shiite divide just weeks after the US withdrawal left Iraq to chart its own future.
The numbers so far are small and not easy to track with precision, but anecdotal accounts and a rise in business at real-estate agencies in Sunni neighborhoods reveal a Sunni community contemplating the worse-case scenario and acting before it’s too late.
Baghdad and the rest of Iraq are already highly segregated places. Running from bombs, death squads and their own neighbors at the height of violence in 2006 and 2007, Sunnis and Shiites fled neighborhoods that were once mixed.
That violence and the resulting migrations slowed in 2008, but tensions are again swirling as a power struggle worsens between Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Sunni politicians who have been largely sidelined since the overthrow of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. And many fear increased violence could result.
“People started to question my origins. Why don’t you live in Azamiyah?” said al-Azami, referring to the Sunni-dominated enclave in northern Baghdad where he has a shop.
He felt so nervous and unwelcome that he began looking for a house in Azamiyah a few weeks ago. Once he moves, he’ll either rent out or sell his Shaab house.
“I will always be a stranger to them,” he said, referring to his Shiite neighbors.
In a sign that he is not alone, rental prices in Azamiyah have risen by about US$200 a month, real-estate agent Abu Abdullah al-Obeidi said. Other Sunni neighborhoods of the capital like Adel and Khadra have also seen rent increases, he said.
“The people who are coming to Azamiyah to rent or buy are afraid that they will be killed during any possible sectarian war if they stay in the mixed areas,” al-Obeidi said.
Iraq’s worst political crisis in years blew up just as the last American troops were rolling across the border into Kuwait on Dec. 18. Al-Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for the country’s highest-ranking Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, on charges he ran a hit squad that assassinated government officials five years ago.
Al-Hashemi is staying in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region beyond the reach of Iraqi law enforcement, and the government has televised purported confessions in which his bodyguards say he paid them to carry out the killings.
Al-Maliki is also trying to get rid of Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq after he likened the prime minister to Saddam, a comparison meant to suggest he had autocratic leanings.
Al-Maliki has threatened to form a government without a key Sunni-backed party, Iraqiya, which has been boycotting parliament because its members say al-Maliki is not sharing power.
Even before the US military withdrawal, sectarian tensions were rising after the arrests of hundreds of former members of Saddam’s Sunni-controlled Baath Party. For Sunnis, a purge of Baathists is seen as a shot against all Sunnis.