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Crisis dims but Iraqis flee homes, protect streets

Written by: Staff

Baghdad, Feb 28: Postwar Iraq's gravest crisis seems to be over for now but it has heightened fears among families, who are abandoning their homes or putting up barricades around them on both sides of the sectarian divide.

Authorities lifted a curfew yesterday after the bombing of a Shi'ite mosque in the city of Samarra last week sparked violence that pushed Iraq to the brink of a full-blown conflict between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims and killed more than 200 people.

Relative calm has returned to the streets of Baghdad. But some people are being swept up by sectarian strife that prompted Iraqi leaders to warn of civil war for the first time.

Families from areas around Baghdad said gunmen forced them to flee their homes two days ago because they are Shi'ites, generating hardship in a city with an explosive mix of Shi'ite and Sunni sects in several districts.

At the Shola Youth Club in western Baghdad, grainy posters of international soccer stars hang on the walls but there are no signs of young athletes, just gunmen protecting a building now home to Shi'ite refugees from Mishahda north of the capital.

"We were 25 families working in a brick factory. They threatened us and said 'you have two hours and after that anyone we find we will slaughter with their family'," said Salem al-Halbusi, sitting on a wrestling mat.

"I lived there since 1976. Before we rarely heard this. There was no Sunni, no Shi'ite. We were one." The families, who are mostly living on donations from a Shi'ite political party, are originally from southern Iraq, an area that was impoverished and oppressed under Saddam Hussein.

They want help from the Shi'ite-led Government that emerged after the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.

"The gunmen gave us a few hours to leave our homes. The owner of the factory refused to help because he was scared as well. All we could do is take a few small bags and leave," said Rasoul Shakir.

"We want the Government to find a solution for us." Other Iraqis took matters into their own hands.

In mostly Sunni areas of Baghdad, Iraqis used sawed-down palm trees to block roads leading to their homes. Others filled barrels with sand to prevent attacks in a country where bombings and shootings are part of everyday life.

The Samarra incident prompted some friends to start their own armed overnight patrols on streets they blocked with palm tree trunks in Zayouna, a Sunni area surrounded by Shi'ite ones.

"Some people have left the area for fear of their lives. I also want to leave Iraq," said Imad Bahjat, 33, after attending the funeral of a fellow Sunni who he said was gunned down.


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