Inside an Iraqi Battleground Neighborhood

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Many of the dead bodies on the streets of Washash in recent weeks have been those of the main male figures of Sunni households, whom Shi'ite death squads typically target in order to frighten a family into abandoning a home. U.S. soldiers who continue to operate in Washash don't believe the ongoing sectarian violence flows just from frictions on the streets there anymore. Instead, they put blame squarely on Mahdi Army operatives from outside the neighborhood, militants who U.S. soldiers say are out to turn Washash into a Shi'ite bastion for al-Sadr on the west side of the Tigris. "Ninety percent of the problem comes from outside in," says 2nd Lieut. Graham Ward, an Army platoon leader who spends many days patrolling house to house on foot in the Washash area. "All fingers point to Sadr City."

Publicly, few religious leaders or prominent political figures among either Sunnis or Shi'ites openly endorse the idea of violent dislocation programs meant to fracture the country. But no one is doing much to stop them. The Association of Muslim Scholars, an eminent Sunni group, continues to circulate DVDs that feature interviews with Sunnis who tell stories of displacement by Mahdi Army loyalists and government forces from the Ministry of the Interior. For their part, al-Sadr's allies downplay the specter of an Iraq broken forever along sectarian divides. "It is natural for the Sunni families to leave their homes in places with a Shi'ite majority," said Sheik Salem Fariji, an official in Najaf with al-Sadr's office, which runs housing programs for Shi'ites. "This is not just because of the Mahdi Army but out of fear of reprisals from Shi'ites who've had relatives killed in other violent areas."

The brutality of the violence has made the prospect of reconciliation even more remote. A Brookings Institution report last month found that many people who have fled sectarian violence in Iraq don't plan to go home. The displaced people of Iraq largely see their dislocation as permanent, the new reality of a changed country.

In Washash, few hopes remain for reversing what ethnic cleansing has already done to the neighborhood. Mansur and his neighbor Hassan Hussein, who are both Shi'ites, say they never imagined they would see a day when their neighbors would not only leave but go in fear. For many Iraqis, watching a family move is an experience as solemn as seeing a grave exhumed. "It's really painful to see families we've known for so long leave," says Hussein. "We would eat together. We would sit together. We played together as children. We felt very close." Mansur doubts things on their block can be the same again. Speaking quietly of the departed families, he says, "I don't think they'll ever come back."

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