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Shopowners flee mixed Baghdad neighborhoods, cementing sectarian divide
Iraq Sectarian Mech 5579566
Auto mechanic Allawi Karim Muhsin, left, works in his shop in the Kasra neighborhood of eastern Baghdad, Iraq on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007. The 40-year-old Shiite man fled the Sunni-dominated neighborhood where he once lived and worked for a Shiite neighborhood. Many mechanics who once worked in mixed industrial zones took their tool boxes and fled the violence that killed colleagues and customers, setting up shop in newly created sectarian industrial areas. - photo by Associated Press
    BAGHDAD — Shiite taxi driver Aly Kaabi used to fear for his life each time his Mercedes needed a spare part. The place to seek replacements was a Sunni-dominated Baghdad neighborhood ruled at the time by militants from al-Qaida in Iraq.
    Now, Kaabi gets his car fixed in a new industrial zone in an east Baghdad Shiite stronghold, itself a mirror image of another that has emerged in a Sunni-dominated western neighborhood.
    The sectarian strife that first separated Baghdad’s residents is now splitting its businesses — suggesting the divisions are becoming permanent.
    The simple interactions that make up normal life in cities around the world — buying gas, going to a grocery store, fixing your car — are now conducted along strictly sectarian lines.
    Despite a dramatic drop in violence and the expulsion of many al-Qaida in Iraq extremists over the last six months, many customers and shop owners in the capital say they will not return to their old mixed neighborhoods, fearing a revival of the bloodshed.
    Before the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, Sunni and Shiite affiliations meant little to businessmen.
    That swiftly changed after violence soared in Baghdad following the February 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of the capital. Thousands were killed across Iraq in the ensuing cycle of sectarian killing.
    After the shrine bombing, Kaabi was forced to dart into the Sunni-dominated Sheik Omar neighborhood at dawn if his Mercedes desperately needed repairs. German and American cars were typically fixed only in that area.
    ‘‘I’m afraid of being killed because of my identity card,’’ said Kaabi. Militants — both Sunni and Shiite — often kill people based on the name written on their identity cards. In Iraq, name can indicate a person’s religious background.
    Kaabi’s cousin disappeared in the Sheik Omar area last May. The taxi driver believes he was kidnapped and killed by Sunni extremists.
    There were 10 killings reported in the Shiekh Omar area this year, though that doesn’t include people kidnapped and found dead in other places.
    In June, Kaabi’s mechanic fled to the Shiite east Baghdad neighborhood of Kasra and reopened shop there. His fellow Shiite customers followed.
    It is not known how many tradesmen have been forced to abandon their workshops because of sectarian strife, but residents say Kasra has seen several new businesses open in recent months.
    Allawi Muhsin, a 40-year-old Shiite mechanic, did not even have time to pack his store’s goods, or load up the furniture in his house, when violence forced him and his family to flee another Sunni-dominated western Baghdad neighborhood in June 2006.
    He settled in Kasra, where he started his business from scratch — a small shed where cheap wooden planks serve as a roof.
    ‘‘After what happened, one can’t go back,’’ he said of his former Abu Ghraib neighborhood from his modest shop, his tool box outside next to a battered blue car missing its front panels.
    ‘‘The problems between people turned them into enemies. Here, I’m secure,’’ he said, standing next to a shelf lined with cans of oil, paint and lubricants.
    Sunnis are also fleeing.
    Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, a 30-year-old Sunni mechanic, fled his workshop in May after militants left a note wedged in the door of his house, demanding he leave the Shiite neighborhood of Baiyaa.
    Spooked by rumors that young boys were acting as informants for Shiite death squads, Wahhab fled Baiyaa, where at least 147 people have been killed over the past year.
    Wahhab rented an apartment in the western Baghdad’s Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Amariyah and opened shop in September.
    Amariyah is flourishing with people like Wahhab, Sunni tradesmen who have invested their savings into shops next to their new homes. Business is not so good as it was in Baiyaa, but Wahhab said he prefers the security of staying among his own.
    ‘‘If I could, I would sell my house and buy in Amariyah. Here we are Sunnis and we know each other,’’ he said.
    That theme runs through conversations with residents on both sides of Baghdad’s religious divide. Feelings of community now have sectarian roots rather than those forged by neighborhood.
    ‘‘I wouldn’t go back to the Baiyaa. Even if they gave me a shop for free, I wouldn’t go back,’’ Wahhab said.
    The mechanic remembers his former Shiite colleagues fondly and speaks to them every now and then. But he cannot remember the last time he saw his friends.
    ‘‘My relations with them are now conducted by telephone,’’ he said. ‘‘They can’t come here, and I can’t go there.’’
    Jennifer Farrar of the Associated Press News Research Center contributed to this story.

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