Return of sectarian threats in Iraq raises alarm
The fliers began turning up at Sunni households in the Iraqi capital's Jihad neighborhood last week bearing a chilling message: Get out now or face "great agony" soon.
The leaflets were signed by the Mukhtar Army, a new Shiite militant group with ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guard. "The zero hour has come. So leave along with your families. ... You are the enemy," the messages warned.
Such overt threats all but disappeared as the darkest days of outright sectarian fighting waned in 2008 and Iraq stepped back from the brink of civil war. Their reemergence now — nearly a decade after the U.S.-led invasion — is a worrying sign that rising sectarian tensions are again gnawing away at Iraqi society.
Iraqis increasingly fear that militants on both sides of the country's sectarian divide are gearing up for a new round of violence that could undo the fragile gains Iraq has made in recent years.
Members of the country's Sunni minority have been staging mass rallies for two months, with some calling for the toppling of a Shiite-led government they feel discriminates against them and is too closely allied with neighboring Iran. Sunni extremists have been stepping up large-scale attacks on predominantly Shiite targets, and concerns are growing that the brutal and increasingly sectarian fighting in Syria could spill across the border.
Many Sunnis who received the Jihad neighborhood messages are taking the warnings at face value and considering making a move.
"Residents are panicking. All of us are obsessed with these fliers," said Waleed Nadhim, a Sunni mobile phone shop owner who lives in the neighborhood. The 33-year-old father plans to leave the area because he doesn't have faith in the police to keep his family safe. "In a lawless country like Iraq, nobody can ignore threats like this."
Iraqi security forces have beefed up their presence in and around Jihad. The middle-class community, nestled along a road to the airport in southwest Baghdad, was home to Sunni civil servants and security officials under Saddam Hussein's regime, though many Shiites now live there too.
The Shiites, who are emboldened by a government and security forces dominated by their sect, have made their presence felt in Jihad in recent years. A Sunni mosque bears graffiti hailing a revered Shiite saint. A billboard on a major road shows firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada alSadr flanked by a fighter gripping a machine gun.
Women walk past a poster of Shiite religious leaders and a Shiite fighter killed during a fight between US troops and al-Mahdi Army militia in the Jihad neighborhood of west Baghdad, Iraq.