Thousands of Iraqis Fleeing the Country

Um Sami and her family left their home in one of Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods after her children and husband were harassed. The Shiite family went first to a more mixed Baghdad neighborhood, then to Jordan, and finally a week later to Cairo.

The veiled woman said her family was not comfortable in Egypt, but escaping Baghdad was a must. "Our life was a disaster. We could not take it anymore," she said.

Since the bombing of an important Shiite shrine in Iraq in late February, such stories of sectarian intimidation and fleeing have become common.

Within Iraq, thousands are on the move as death threats drive them to neighborhoods where their sect has more strength, international and Iraqi officials say. Reprisal killings between Shiite and Sunni extremists have sharply increased since the shrine bombing, and the bodies of civilian victims often turn up in the streets of Baghdad.

An estimated 40,000 people have been internally displaced in Iraq since the blast, said Jean Philippe Chauzy, a spokesman for the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration.

Iraqi officials put the number at 65,000, an official in the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Immigration said this week on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. Chauzy said his group has heard the new, higher number, but could not confirm it.

In addition, neighboring countries have seen greater numbers of Iraqis arriving, according to international officials.

Astrid van Genderen Stort, the Mideast spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said there has been a "significant increase" in the number of Iraqis who are leaving their country, although the agency does not have specific numbers for the period since the shrine bombing.

Most of those leaving have gone to Jordan and Syria, and some to Egypt, she said.

In 2004, 358 Iraqis had registered with the UNHCR as refugees in Egypt, van Genderen Stort said. The number jumped to 828 in the period from early 2005 to late March 2006.

Iraqi embassies in the three countries say they also have no numbers on how many Iraqis have fled within the last two months. But overall, officials in Jordan say there are 250,000 Iraqis legally residing in the kingdom. Unofficial estimates put the number at 600,000, at least.

Ban Istefan is one of them. Her Christian family was threatened in Iraq about a month ago and fled to Jordan. The 34-year-old biology lecturer, speaking by phone from Amman, said both her Christian family and a next-door Sunni neighbor received letter threats saying, "The time has come for the infidels to be punished."

Asked if Iraq was in the midst of civil war, Istefan said, "Of course ... but no one wants to admit it."

Um Sami's story is also typical. Her Shiite family first moved from their house in Saidiya, a mostly Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad, to the mixed eastern suburb of New Baghdad, hoping the harassment would stop.

When it did not, they fled to Jordan. But that was too expensive, sending them on again to Cairo. Um Sami said their new life was "humiliating," but fleeing was the only option.

Standing in line recently with dozens of other Iraqis at the UNHCR offices in Cairo, the 40-year-old woman waited to register her family in hopes of gaining protection from being sent back to Iraq. So far, she has not been able to gain a residency permit from Egyptian officials.

Another man applying with the agency, Omran al-Zubaidi, said he left Iraq because he did not want to be involved in the bloodshed that had broken out since the shrine bombing.

Al-Zubaidi, a 50-year-old communications ministry retiree and a Sunni, said his country's fate is "totally unpredictable." He worries that Iraqis will "lose our humanity and turn into beasts, taking revenge on each other."

Most of people fleeing Iraq go by road, through dangerous areas rife with insurgents.

Ahmad Abdullah, a 32-year-old Iraqi driver who carries such travelers, says he transports people from Iraq to Jordan once every two days. Almost no one is making the return trip to Iraq.

"I arrived today, I will leave tonight to Baghdad, because the company informed me that I have people waiting for me. I have to drive them tomorrow to Amman," he said in a recent interview.

"It is a good thing for business, but a bad thing for people," he added.