Civilians in Iraq Flee Mixed Areas as Killings Rise

By EDWARD WONG and KIRK SEMPLE

New York Times

April 2, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 1 The war in Iraq has entered a bloodier phase, with American casualties steadily declining over the past five months while the killings of Iraqi civilians have risen tremendously in sectarian violence, spurring tens of thousands of Iraqis to flee from mixed Shiite-Sunni areas.

The new pattern, detailed in casualty and migration statistics and in interviews with American commanders and Iraqi officials, has led to further separation of Shiite and Sunni Arabs, moving the country toward a de facto partitioning along sectarian and ethnic lines an outcome that the Bush administration has doggedly worked to avoid over the past three years.

The nature of the Iraq war has been changing since at least late autumn, when political friction between Sunni Arabs and the majority Shiites rose even as American troops began to carry out a long-term plan to decrease their street presence. But the killing accelerated most sharply after the bombing on Feb. 22 of a revered Shiite shrine, which unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodletting.

About 900 Iraqi civilians were killed in March, up from about 700 the month before, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent organization that tracks deaths. Meanwhile, at least 29 American troops were killed in March, the second-lowest monthly total since the war began.

The White House says that little violence occurs in most of Iraq's 18 provinces. But those four or five provinces where most of the killings and migrations take place are Iraq's major population and economic centers, generally mixed regions that include the capital, Baghdad, and contain much of the nation's infrastructure crucial factors in Iraq's prospects for stability.

The Iraqi public's reaction to the violence has been substantial. Since the shrine bombing, 30,000 to 36,000 Iraqis have fled their homes because of sectarian violence or fear of reprisals, say officials at the International Organization for Migration, based in Geneva. The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration estimated that at least 5,500 families had moved, with the biggest group being 1,250 families settling in the Shiite holy city of Najaf after leaving Baghdad and Sunni-dominated towns in central Iraq.

The families are living with relatives or in abandoned buildings, and a crisis of food and water shortages is starting to build, officials say.

"We lived in Latifiya for 30 years," said Abu Hussein al-Ramahi, a Shiite farmer with a family of seven, referring to a village south of Baghdad that is a stronghold of the Sunni Arab insurgency. "But a month ago, two armed people with masks on their faces said if I stayed in this area, my family and I would no longer remain alive. They shot bullets near my feet. I went back home immediately and we left the area early next morning for Najaf."

Mr. Ramahi's family and other migrants are now squatting in a derelict hotel in the holy city.

"It's almost a creeping polarization of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

In the chaos, he said, "we see a slow, steady loss of confidence, a growing process of distrust which you see day by day as people at the political level bicker. Everything has become sectarian and ethnic."

The shifting violence and new migration patterns are fueling discussion about whether Iraq is devolving into civil war. Although that determination may be impossible to make in the short term, the debate itself could increase the political pressure that President Bush is facing at home to draw down the force of 133,000 American troops here. Even if American deaths keep falling, polls show the American public has little appetite for engagement in an Iraqi civil war.

Commanders in Iraq say the insurgent groups in the country, particularly Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, have shifted the focus of their attacks in an effort to foment civil war and undermine negotiations to form a four-year government. "What we are seeing him do now is shift his target from the coalition forces to Iraqi civilians and Iraqi security forces," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a senior spokesman for the American command. "The enemy is trying to stop the formation of this national unity government; he's trying to inflame sectarian violence."

Dozens of bodies, garroted or executed with gunshots to the head, are turning up almost daily in Baghdad alone. The gruesome work is usually attributed to death squads or Shiite militias, some in Iraqi police or army uniforms. Meanwhile, powerful bombings, a favorite tactic of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency, continue to devastate civilian areas and Iraqi bases or recruitment centers.

The number of kidnappings of Iraqis is surging because of an explosion of criminal gangs working for their own gain or with armed political groups. Scores of civilians are abducted every week, usually for ransoms of $20,000 to $30,000. In recent weeks, masked men have stormed offices in Baghdad and hauled away all the workers.

At the same time, American commanders have decreased the number of their patrols and have tried to push the Iraqi security forces into a more visible role.

That shift, along with improved armor and bomb detection, may partly explain the drop in casualties. Last October, 96 American troops died. That number has decreased every month since then, but fell most sharply between February and March to 29 in March from 55 in February.

Iraqi civilian deaths generally increased in the same period, from 465 in October, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which tallies deaths from a wide range of news media reports, a method believed to give rough though under-reported estimates.

The broad trend is also supported by statistics on the number of attacks. A senior Pentagon official said that attacks on Americans, Iraqi forces and Iraqi civilians had remained at about 600 per week since last September but that the focus of the attacks have changed. In September, 82 percent of attacks were against American-led forces and 18 percent against Iraqis; in February, 65 percent were against the foreigners and 35 percent against Iraqis.

Top American officials are concerned that despite the growing number of trained and equipped Iraqi security forces being fielded, and the large number of insurgents killed or captured in the past six months, the number of overall attacks has not declined, the Defense Department official said.

"It should be worrisome to us that it's still at the same level," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the trend. "With the number of operations that are occurring and the number of people we are detaining growing, and truly with the number of tactical successes that we're having, you would expect to see a reduction in the trend."

American officials say the solution to the sectarian bloodshed lies in the Iraqis' quickly forming a national unity government, with representatives of all major groups in Iraq checking each other through compromises.

But with each political milestone the transfer of sovereignty in 2004, two sets of elections in 2005, the referendum on the constitution the Americans have asserted that the country would stabilize. Instead, the violence has continued unabated, sometimes changing in nature, as it is doing now, but never declining. And as the resulting migration continues, Iraq's political groups could have even less incentive to compromise with one another, as they separate into their enclaves.

Many Iraqis who are moving say they are fleeing out of fear of increasingly partisan Iraqi security forces.

The police and commando forces are infested with militia recruits, mostly from Shiite political parties, and are accused by Sunni Arabs of carrying out sectarian executions. One Sunni-run TV network warned viewers last week not to allow Iraqi policemen or soldiers into their homes unless the forces were accompanied by American troops.

"The militias are in charge now," said Aliyah al-Bakr, 42, a Sunni Arab schoolteacher who had two male relatives abducted and executed by black-clad gunmen in Baghdad on Feb. 22. "I'm more afraid of Iraqi militias than of the Americans. But the American presence is still the cornerstone of all the problems."

Some of the migration is happening within Baghdad, with families moving from one block to the next, from neighborhood to neighborhood, increasingly segregating the capital.

Others are fleeing across wide swaths of desert. At least 761 families have settled in Baghdad after moving from Anbar Province and other Sunni-dominated areas to the west, according to Iraqi government statistics. The same is happening on the Sunni Arab end there are reports of 50 families moving from Baghdad to the Sunni city of Falluja.

Aid groups have been handing out mattresses, blankets, cooking sets and other gear to families throughout central and southern Iraq. Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, says it is a short-term response to what could be a more lasting issue. "We've been doing emergency work," she said. "The situation for those displaced won't be resolved anytime soon."

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington for this article, Khalid W. Hassan from Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Najaf.