Inside an Iraqi Battleground Neighborhood

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The locals called it Body Street, the place in Washash, a Baghdad slum on the western side of the Tigris, where the corpses would pile up. That was a few months ago. Now every road in Washash is a body street. One of the bodies appeared near the home of Ahmed Mansur. He was standing there one morning when he heard about the corpse. He joined a group of people walking together to have a look. "He was very handsome," Mansur says. "He was wearing a gold necklace and a gold ring. There was a bullet wound in his forehead." Not long after, all the Sunni families on the street left Washash. One Sunni family found Shi'ite renters and handed the house over to them quietly. The other Sunni family gave its house to Shi'ite relatives. They were the last two Sunni families on a block that now, like most of the neighborhood, is all Shi'ite.

As Iraq descends into a full-scale civil war, the face of the country is changing forever. Sectarian violence is forcing people from their homes, cleansing mixed neighborhoods and carving the country into ethnic enclaves. Since February, sectarian violence has forced more than 418,000 people to move, according to the most recent estimates by the International Organization for Migration. The real figures are probably much higher, since many go unregistered by the government or aid agencies as they find refuge with relatives, drift into makeshift camps or settle into homes previously occupied by members of another sect.

Baghdad alone is home to at least 36,000 displaced people. And there is increasing evidence that radical militias, chiefly Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, are orchestrating violent purges aimed at transforming mixed neighborhoods like Washash into ethnic strongholds. U.S. soldiers who raided a suspected Mahdi Army safe house in Washash last month say they found pages from a neighborhood housing log; among the papers was a list of 65 houses where Shi'ite families have replaced Sunni families. On other pages were drafts of threat letters clearly intended for delivery to Sunni homes. The log included 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.

The latest eruption of sectarian violence in Baghdad, which began with a mortar and car-bomb attack by Sunni insurgents on Thursday, is sure to accelerate the cleansing. The constant churn of people moving and resettling is an indication of how far the country has moved toward an irreversible breakup, similar to the one the world witnessed in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Al-Qaeda in Iraq's bloody campaign against Shi'ites nationwide has ensured that almost all of western Iraq is clear of Shi'ites. Iraq's Kurdish territory in the north has all but seceded. As for Baghdad, where the ultimate fate of Iraq will be decided, the city is tearing itself in half. Sunnis in Baghdad are gathering west of the Tigris, where they're more closely connected to the Sunni territories of Anbar province. Baghdad's Shi'ites are settling on the eastern side of the river, facing the border with Iran.

Amid the frenzy of repopulation, mixed neighborhoods like Washash have become the main battlegrounds of sectarian warfare. The slum is a maze of tumbledown buildings and is home to 40,000 people — during Saddam's time, roughly divided between Sunnis and Shi'ites. As TIME's Tim McGirk reported on a visit to Washash in August 2005, low-level sectarian murders began more than a year ago. When U.S. soldiers moved into the neighborhood about a month ago to quell the bloodshed, Shi'ites and Sunnis appeared to be targeting one another unpredictably. But as U.S. soldiers learned more about the most recent killings, a pattern emerged. The murders looked less like mayhem and more like an organized effort to clear the neighborhood of Sunnis, whose homes were then handed to Shi'ite families. Ali Shi'aa, who heads the local council for Washash, says more than 250 Shi'ite families have arrived there after fleeing violence elsewhere. "The families who came here after being displaced elsewhere in Baghdad came angry," says Shi'aa. "They started taking revenge on Sunni families, to displace them just as they had been displaced."

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