BAGHDAD – For nearly a decade Abu Omar has been fleeing Iraq's many conflicts, but they always seem to catch up to him.
In his Sunni family's ancestral home in Fallujah it was the heavy shelling — first by the Americans in 2004 and then again this past January, when the walls shook and the roof caved in over their heads. In the Baghdad neighborhood where they have twice sought refuge, it is the persistent fear of a late-night knock on the door by shadowy sectarian militias.
Abu Omar's grim odyssey is shared by countless members of Iraq's once-dominant Sunni minority, who feel maligned by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, hounded by its security forces and increasingly threatened, once again, by the militias that terrorized them during the darkest days of sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007.
Their grievances have metastasized since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and handed power to the long-oppressed Shiite majority. Their anger fueled the rampage of Sunni militants across northern and western Iraq this summer, and the militant onslaught has aggravated sectarian tensions elsewhere, again driving Iraq to the brink of civil war.
After a humiliating retreat from much of the north in June, the Iraqi military managed to halt the offensive by the Islamic State extremist group on the outskirts of Baghdad. But in the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in the heart of the capital, Abu Omar feels he is under a different kind of siege.
The patriarch of a 13-member family says he's afraid to let his sons leave Azamiyah because their names give them away as Sunni. "They hear Omar and Othman and right away think they are with Daesh," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. "The (Shiite) militias want to make trouble for anyone who is Sunni."
The family, which asked that their last name not be published for fear of harassment, first fled to Azamiyah from Fallujah in 2005, when U.S.-led forces launched a massive assault on the restive western town aimed at rooting out insurgents.
Two years later they returned to Fallujah, fleeing the sectarian violence then engulfing the capital, when Sunni and Shiite militants abducted and killed scores of people every day, leaving the streets littered with corpses, many bearing signs of torture.
The worst of the sectarian violence subsided in the following years under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who deployed the military against Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias and briefly united Iraqis under the banner of security.
But Sunnis, who supplied the country's rulers from Ottoman times until the 2003 invasion, say the grievances underpinning the insurgency — the discrimination, the mass arrests and the prosecution of top Sunni leaders — only grew worse, eventually paving the way for the militant takeover of nearly one-third of the country.
Late last year the Islamic State group and allied Sunni militants seized Fallujah, and in a grim repeat of 2005 the Iraqi military surrounded the city and began bombarding it. The shelling was even worse this time, Abu Omar said, and when the roof collapsed, he and his family returned to Baghdad — again seeking what can only be described as relative safety.
The decision by al-Maliki to step down earlier this month in favor of Haider al-Abadi, a fellow member of his Shiite Islamic Dawa Party, has raised hopes for a more inclusive government that can address Sunni grievances and present a united front against the Islamic extremists.
Sunni lawmaker Ahmed al-Misari told The Associated Press al-Abadi has an "historical opportunity" to reverse tensions that have festered under the previous Shiite-led governments. But he said al-Abadi must respond to Sunni demands, including "abolishing anti-terrorism laws, ending the discrimination against people and letting the people in Sunni provinces handle their own security."
Whether Shiite leaders can meet such demands at a time of war, and following years of near-daily car bombs and other attacks by Sunni insurgents, many targeting Shiite civilians, remains to be seen. Little is known about al-Abadi, a longtime lawmaker who until now had largely avoided the media spotlight.
And events on the ground may defy his best intentions.
When al-Maliki and other leaders called on Iraqis to join the security forces after Sunni militants seized Iraq's second-largest city Mosul in June, long-dormant Shiite militias mobilized yet again, holding parades in the capital in which they brandished heavy weapons.
Human Rights Watch said last month that government-backed militias have been kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians in Baghdad and surrounding provinces over the past five months. The rights group has also accused the government of carrying out "indiscriminate airstrikes" on four Sunni-majority towns and cities, including Fallujah and Mosul, which killed at least 75 civilians.
"The government seems to think that if people blame militias for killings it can wash its hands of the matter," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "The government needs to rein in these militias and call a halt to killing people just because of their sect."
In the southern Shiite-majority city of Basra, nearly two dozen Sunnis reportedly have been killed and many more wounded in a spate of targeted killings and abductions since late June, the United Nations said Wednesday.
"In each incident the local community has expressed the view that the victims were targeted for no other reason than their faith," said Francesco Motta, chief of the human rights section of the U.N. mission in Iraq. Authorities have listed the perpetrators as "unidentified gunmen" and no arrests have been made, he said.
In Azamiyah, residents say the Shiite militias returned, even before this summer's militant blitz.
In February 2013, Umm Mawloud, who also asked that her last name not be published, had just finished clearing off the dinner table when there was a knock at the door. When she opened it, around 30 men with assault rifles barged in, stealing money, laptops and cellphones, and even sifting through the family Quran to see if anything was hidden inside. When her son Mawloud and son-in-law Omar confronted the gunmen, they hustled both men out of the house. Neither has been heard from since.
"Go to every house in Azamiyah and everybody has a terrible story like ours," Mouayed said. "We pleaded with everyone in the government to tell us where our sons are but nobody helped us. Will the next government be better? God only knows."
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