BAGHDAD (Reuters) -Tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled their homes in fear of sectarian violence that has worsened since formation of a U.S.-backed national unity government two months ago, official data showed on Thursday.
A day after the United States issued a stern warning to both Shi’ite and minority Sunni leaders to match talk with action on reining in “death squads” and “terrorists” from their respective communities, the Migration Ministry said more than 30,000 people had registered as refugees this month alone.
“We consider this to be a dangerous sign,” ministry spokesman Sattar Nowruz told Reuters, acknowledging that many more people fled abroad or quietly sought refuge with relatives rather than sign up for official aid or move into state camps.
The increase took to 27,000 families — some 162,000 people — the number who have registered for help with the ministry in the five months since the February 22 bombing of a Shi’ite shrine at Samarra sparked a new phase of communal bloodshed.
“These families were threatened in different parts of Iraq and that is what forced them to leave their homes,” Nowruz said, adding that the ministry was building new tented refugee camps.
The United Nations joined the U.S. ambassador and the U.S. military commander in Iraq on Wednesday in sounding an alarm on the level of violence, three months after Nuri al-Maliki was nominated as prime minister and two months after his coalition of Sunnis, Kurds and fellow Shi’ites was sworn in by parliament.
Maliki made getting the refugees home one of the 33 points of his government programme unveiled on May 20; but since then tens of thousands have continued to pack up and leave, some for good, others hoping to return when the violence abates.
Four of the bloodiest attacks this year have taken place this month — two al Qaeda-claimed car bombings of Shi’ite markets in Baghdad and Kufa and two mass assaults by gunmen, one on a Sunni district of Baghdad, the other at nearby Mahmudiya.
Those four alone, two of them earlier this week, claimed some 220 lives. But as the United Nations said in a report this week, that in turn is just a small portion of the killing that is going on. Some 100 civilians a day are dying in violence, a U.N. report estimated, saying it was getting worse.
Tales are legion, especially in Baghdad and its surroundings where Shi’ites and Saddam Hussein’s once dominant fellow Sunnis live side by side, of killers out at night and, increasingly, in broad daylight, targeting people because of their religion.
Sunni leaders accuse Shi’ite militia death squads, some with links to government parties and operating inside the police, of a form of Balkan-style “ethnic cleansing.” Shi’ites equally blame Sunni militants, who have been fighting U.S. occupation and Shi’ite majority rule for the past three years.
The United Nations warned this week of a vicious cycle of refugees fuelling new hatreds and in turn more displacement.
Sunnis and other minorities have been leaving the south while Shi’ites have quit areas around Baghdad and the north. There has also been an ethnic component to the displacement, with Kurds and Arabs moving to avoid hostile neighbours.
In Baghdad, the Tigris river is becoming a divide between the mostly Sunni west and Shi’ite east — definitions that leave many of the city’s seven million people on the “wrong” side.
In a blunt statement on Wednesday, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and General George Casey, the U.S. commander said: “We call on Iraqi leaders to take responsibility and pursue reconciliation not just in words, but through deeds as well.”
Maliki goes next week to Washington, where President George W. Bush’s administration hopes for political and economic progress in Iraq that may help at November’s congressional elections and raise hopes for a start on withdrawing its troops.
But Iraqi politicians and diplomats increasingly question the resolve with the government and parliament to set aside partisan aims to stop a bloody break-up of the oil-rich state.
Maliki has called his national reconciliation plan a “last chance” for peace. His foreign minister said the government had just months to prove itself, warning of “full sectarian war.”