BAGHDAD — The sounds of cars honking, shoppers shuffling and children laughing and playing drums fill the air in Hurriyah, a Baghdad neighborhood where machine-gun fire and death squads once kept terrified residents huddled in their darkened homes.
But normalcy has come at a price: Few Sunnis who were driven from what was once a religiously mixed enclave have returned five years after Hurriyah was the epicenter of Iraq’s savage sectarian war. With Shiite militias still effectively policing the area, most Sunnis will not dare move back for years to come.
Hurriyah — the name means “freedom” in Arabic — is symptomatic of much of Iraq: far quieter than at the height of the war but with an uneasy peace achieved through intimidation and bloodshed. The number of Iraqi neighborhoods in which members of the two Muslim sects live side by side and intermarry has dwindled.
The forced segregation, fueled by extremists from both communities, has fundamentally changed the character of the country. And it raises questions about whether the Iraqis can heal the wounds of the sectarian massacres after American forces leave by the end of this month.
“It’s quiet now, but from time to time there are problems,” said a Shiite man in a pinstriped dishdasha, or traditional Arabic shirtdress, who stopped to chat outside a grocery store.
“Back then, the people were in a panic, we were in fear of everybody because of the killings,” said the man who would identify himself only by his nickname of Abu Ahmed — a sign of the fear that still pervades the neighborhood. “Many families left when they were afraid for their lives.”
Getting to Hurriyah — a middle-class neighborhood of modest, single-family homes and shops just west of the Tigris River — is not easy.
Thick blast walls and a security checkpoint protect the entrance. Guards check drivers’ IDs.
On the neighborhood’s main road, a visitor can see banners of Shiite saints posted on concrete walls, along with a painted mural of Snow White whistling to a bird.
The streets are also lined with billboards depicting slain soldiers of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia controlled by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that made up most of the death squads. Their pictures are shown under the glowering faces of al-Sadr and his revered father, Mohammed al-Sadr, who was killed in 1999 by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen.
Gaggles of boys roam the wide streets littered with rubble, playing drums and laughing. On a recent sunny Sunday morning, men were sipping tea at cafes while women shopped. A cheerful, elderly woman in a black head-to-toe abaya greeted a reporter with kisses but then hurried away when asked for her name.
Deadly bombings remain common in Hurriyah, although far less frequent than a few years ago. It’s the Shiite militias, who kill those they deem traitors, that spur the most dread.
“Even though there are police and Iraqi soldiers in Hurriyah, we still consider the security situation there unstable,” said Iraqi police Capt. Hassan Hadi. “Militias and criminal gangs are behind this instability, which needs more time, checkpoints and inspections, and tighter security measures, before it will get better.”
U.S. and Iraqi intelligence officials believe Hurriyah is now a haven for a Mahdi Army splinter group: Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or Band of the People of Righteousness. They say the militia does not have al-Sadr’s backing, relying instead on Iranian support of about $5 million in cash and weapons each month. Iraqi officials confirm Iran’s role in the militia, although Tehran has repeatedly dismissed the accusations.
Ali Hussein, 49, a local electrician, said the militias like Asaib Ahl al-Haq have morphed from protectors into Mafia-type organizations in Hurriyah, shaking down businesses for cash.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq “takes millions from these entrepreneurs and businessmen,” Hussein said. “Because if they refuse to pay, the Asaib group would send their agents to destroy their businesses.”
Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, chief spokesman for the departing American military in Iraq, said Asaib Ahl al-Haq militiamen based in Hurriyah were behind recent attacks on the fortified Green Zone, which houses government headquarters and foreign embassies. He also accused the group of launching indirect fire and armor-piercing explosives known as EFPs on the sprawling Victory Base Camp, which until recently housed tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers.
Buchanan predicted the Shiite militias will keep Sunnis from moving back to their old homes.
“Hurriyah was all about ethnic cleansing,” he said. “For them (Sunnis) to overcome all of that would take a heck of a lot of motivation. And I just don’t see it anytime in the near future. We might get there eventually.”
For generations, Shiites and Sunnis lived together in Hurriyah, their families mixing and often marrying. There were also tensions: Under the protection of their patron, Saddam, some Sunnis derided Shiites and their religious rituals. Sunnis dominated the northern part of the neighborhood, with Shiites forming the majority in the south. The area in the middle was religiously mixed.
After Saddam’s fall in 2003, Sunni insurgents moved into the neighborhood to attack Shiites. That prompted Shiite militias from across Baghdad to rush to Hurriyah, where they roamed the streets, intimidating, kidnapping and killing Sunnis.
On one particularly violent day, Nov. 24, 2006, Mahdi militiamen stormed Hurriyah with machine guns and shoulder-fired rockets to avenge an al-Qaida attack that killed hundreds of Shiites in Sadr City. The militiamen burned homes and attacked Sunni mosques. Twenty-one Sunnis died. Fellow Sunnis insisted they were innocent worshippers. Shiites believed they were fighters using the mosques as bases. The truth remains in dispute to this day.
Sunnis fled en masse. Some moved elsewhere in Baghdad, others went to refugee camps in western Iraq and still others left the country altogether. What had been one of the most religiously diverse areas in the capital turned almost exclusively Shiite over the span of one year. Only one other neighborhood was as upended: Dora in southern Baghdad, which today is nearly completely Sunni.
A few Sunnis braved it out and still live in Hurriyah.
Abu Muhanad, a 53-year-old government worker, said he moved his oldest son out of the neighborhood in 2006 but was less afraid for himself.
“I had big faith in my Shiite neighbors and I was sure that they would protect me and my family,” he said. “Now, the situation is better and I still have my good Shiite neighbors who love me. I am even rejecting requests by my sons now to leave Hurriyah and buy a bigger house somewhere else in Baghdad.”
The remains of what were once thriving Sunni mosques — still in ruins five years later — are reminders of how the war has fundamentally changed Iraqi society.
Half the dome of the Nidaa Allah mosque was sheared off in the Nov. 24, 2006, assault, and what remains is still pimpled with bullet holes. Across the street, grocer Amir Salman remembers shuttering his shop for six months.
“At that time, everyone was hiding in their homes,” said Salman, a Shiite. “It is better now, and there are still some Sunnis here, but they are few. It used to be about 50-50, with Sunnis and Shiites.”
He shrugged. “Maybe it will get better,” he said.