Ethnic Cleansing in a Baghdad Neighborhood?

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An Iraqi man surveys the wreckage left behind following a bomb blast near the Sunni Abdel Kader al-Jeilani mosque in central Baghdad, October 23, 2006.

The place was empty when U.S. soldiers burst in, raiding a house in Baghdad's violent Washash neighborhood in the hopes of finding killers involved in sectarian murders. By the look of things, no one had been there for some time, even though neighbors in the area reported seeing people dragged inside in recent weeks. But apparently someone involved in the area's sectarian violence had been there recently: left behind was a leather-bound day planner that gave a disturbing picture of the systematic nature of Baghdad's bloodshed.

Though the book was largely blank, inside were several sheets of loose paper covered in Arabic writing. Back at Camp Taji, a massive U.S. Army base north of Baghdad, translators sifted through the papers and found evidence backing up what some U.S.troops who patrol Washash have come to suspect — that Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army are conducting what amounts to an ethnic cleansing campaign in Washash, a predominantly Shi'ite area with pockets of Sunni residents.

Ethnic Cleansing in 'Little Sadr City'?

AUDIO: Papers found by U.S. troops suggest Shi'ite militia are systematically killing or forcing Sunnis out of their homes. TIME's Mark Kukis reports from Baghdad.

Sadr's militia, the document suggests, are systematically driving Sunni families from their homes around Washash, which some U.S. troops who patrol there have taken to calling Little Sadr City. Among the papers found in the raid is a list of 65 houses around Washash where Shi'ite families have replaced Sunni families. On other pages were drafts of threat letters clearly intended for delivery to Sunni homes. And there was a roster of "virtuous families" in the Washash area with house numbers written next to their names, so the militia relocation agents could keep track of people deemed fit to stay.

"They're very well organized," said Capt. Johnny Sutton, whose troops head up U.S. patrols in Washash.

U.S. forces moved into Washash and surrounding neighborhoods about three weeks ago, as rising sectarian violence left bodies surfacing on the streets almost daily. Initially the mounting death toll looked simply like the results of a spasm of violence in the neighborhood. But as soldiers began piecing together bits of information they uncovered about the killings, a pattern emerged.

Some Sunni families around Washash have been getting threat letters from militant Sadr operatives, who typically set a deadline for them to clear out of their homes. There's a DVD version as well, with demands for a family to move out accompanied by images of houses exploding. Often that's enough to scare a family into moving. Sometimes the Mahdi operatives go further, however. U.S. soldiers I joined on patrols in Washash say Shi'ite militiamen will sometimes abduct and murder the main male figure in a Sunni household, leaving his family unable to afford their home or too terrified to stay. It appears these targeted Sunnis make up much of the body count on the streets in Washash.

How many Sunni families have been driven out is impossible to say. But it's safe to assume that the list U.S. soldiers found represents only a fraction of the Shi'ite families who've been moved into Washash from elsewhere in Baghdad by Sadr's militia. Sutton says his troops, who work closely with Iraqi security forces, plan to contact the Shi'ite families listed in the Madhi Army housing log for Washash to see what they know.

"Some of these people may be unwitting," said Sutton. "They may not have realized what had happened and how they ended up there. Some of them may have."