ARBIL, Iraq - Hanan's family could never have thought three years ago of leaving
Baghdad. They had lived for years in peace with their Shi'ite neighbors in the
ethnically mixed Shaab district. All that changed the morning they saw a letter
in their courtyard giving them three days to leave.
Hanan left for Arbil with her five children 10 days ago. Arbil is in Kurdistan,
where peace prevails, unlike the rest of Iraq.
"It is very dangerous over there in Baghdad," Hanan, 40, told IPS.
"It is a war of streets between Shi'ites and Sunnis there. Nobody can feel
In Salahaddin town now, 29km east of Arbil, she feels safe. They live in the
house of a Kurdish friend, since they cannot afford to pay rent, and no one
in the family has a job.
Her husband has not joined the family. Hanan says he cannot drive his taxi
from Baghdad to Arbil because his identity card shows he is Sunni, and the road
is too dangerous for Sunnis.
Her 20-year-old daughter Nariman quit school and cannot go back even to receive
her exam results. "I don't feel safe returning to Baghdad any more. I want
to stay here in Arbil."
Hundreds of thousands of other families have had to deal with a similar situation
in the ethnically mixed cities of central Iraq where Shi'ite militias and Sunni
armed men are at war with one another.
Like Hanan, many hit by the violence seek refuge in the northern Kurdistan
region. According to official figures provided by humanitarian organizations
and the Kurdistan regional government, around 6,000 families have moved from
volatile regions of Iraq to the three provinces of the Kurdish region between
2004 and this month.
The sectarian strife escalated after the blasts in the Shi'ite holy shrines of
Samarra, 125km north of Baghdad, in February this year. Shi'ites have blamed Sunnis
for the attack.
The killings continue, mostly between Sunni and Shi'ite. Iraqis officials say
3,438 civilians lost their lives in violent incidents in July, an average of
110 killings a day.
Many fear it could get much worse if Iraq falls into full-scale civil war.
People fear that such violence could expand to other regions and drag in other
ethnic and sectarian groups.
"The fighting can engulf five regions which have mixed ethnic and sectarian
populations," Farid Assasad, head of the Kurdistan Strategic Studies Center
in Suleimaniya in Kurdistan region told IPS. Those areas, he said, include Baghdad,
Kirkuk, Diyala province, Salahaddin province and parts of Anbar province.
Each of these areas has its own kind of mix. Kirkuk is located 250km north
of Baghdad, and has a mixed population of Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs. Diyala
province is 50km northeast of Baghdad, and home to mixed Sunni Arab, Shi'ite Arab
and Kurdish populations.
Salahaddin, 140km northwest of Baghdad, has a population of Sunni Arab, Shi'ite
Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman communities. Anbar province, 100km west of Baghdad,
has a mix of Sunni and Shi'ite populations.
"Iraq is not yet in a state of civil war," Assasad said. "But
if the current tensions are not curtailed, they can lead to a destructive civil
The current turmoil is not something new in Iraq's history, he said. "It
is rather a historical extension of some past hostilities that have existed
among Shi'ites and Sunnis of Iraq ever since the death of Shi'ite-revered Imam Ali,
1400 years ago."
The schism between Shi'ite and Sunni branches of Islam emerged over a successor
to Prophet Muhammad following his death in 632AD. Shi'ites believe Imam Ali was
recommended by the Prophet to replace him, a belief Sunnis do not share.
Assasad is optimistic that there are still "hopes and ways" to prevent
the much-predicted civil war.
"The fact that none of the Shi'ites and Sunnis can achieve a decisive and
final victory over the other side can lessen the likelihood of a civil war,"
"Besides, a tactical solution at this stage is the creation of separate
regions for each of the three major communities of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds within
a federal structure that puts each sect in charge of its own security and governance."
A. Ahmed, 45 (he did not want to give his full name), a Sunni Arab university
professor, who has witnessed the violence closely, says civil war is here already.
"I left my house because of the civil war," said Ahmed who now teaches
science at Koya University, 79km east of Arbil. "The only difference between
the current situation and a real full-blown civil war is that heavy weaponry
is not being used."