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One Iraqi Woman Stands Up to Sectarian Intimidators

In the Iraqi capital, illegal Sunni and Shi'ite groups are trying to shift the sectarian balance of neighborhoods to their favor. They use intimidation and executions to force residents of different sects to flee their homes. From Baghdad, VOA's Margaret Besheer has the story of one woman who would not be driven away.

Ala'a sits in her nearly-dark living room, just one lamp running off the generator. She is a Sunni Arab who lives in a predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood of northwestern Baghdad. In the last few weeks, Shi'ite militiamen targeted her and the few remaining Sunni families in the area.

Ala'a fidgets with her headscarf as she tells how her ordeal began on an ordinary morning when she discovered a red "X" painted on the small shop her family owns nearby. At first she thought it was just some mischievous teenagers, but then two days later, another red "X" appeared on her house. Written under it was "Leave, your blood is wanted."

Next a note was left in their front yard. It said, "You came back? Are you challenging us? We will burn you and kill you because you are Nawasib" - a derogatory name Shi'ites use against Sunnis.

Frightened, Ala'a called the American army unit responsible under the new Baghdad security plan for her neighborhood. Captain Benjamin Morales, the commander of Company B of the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division responded.

"We went there, we talked to the family. They had a death threat note on the door and they gave it to us," he said. "We gave them our tip number and said if they ever came by again give us a call. About a week later they said they were outside and they were spray- painting graffiti and yelling at them again."

Captain Morales says there were seven armed men, five in a car, and two on a motorcycle. They were threatening the other Sunni families in the neighborhood and had sprayed graffiti glorifying the Mahdi Army on four or five other Sunni houses.

The Mahdi Army is the militia of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Many Sunnis blame its members for intimidation and executions in their neighborhoods.

A few days later the men returned.

Ala'a says she and her family were sitting in the front garden when they began shooting at the house. The family fled inside and then the militiamen locked them in using chains and padlocks.

They told Ala'a and her family they would be back to kill them. Ala'a called Captain Morales and his men responded immediately.

"We shot the locks off the doors and freed the families. There were multiple Sunni families that were locked into their houses," he said. "They went to every Sunni family in that neighborhood and locked them into their houses and said they would be back within 48 hours to kill them."

Amazingly, once Ala'a and her family were freed, they did not leave their home despite fears the gunmen would return.

That night, the American troops watched Ala'a's house from a distance. Four men returned and the soldiers arrested them.

Captain Morales says he cannot yet confirm whether they were Mahdi Army, only that they were criminals. But Ala'a has no doubts they were from the Mahdi Army, which has a strong presence in her neighborhood.

She says the militia has become much quieter in the area since the Americans arrested some of their members.

But she says persistent fear of the militia is keeping her from going out much. She says the militiamen have threatened her saying the Americans cannot protect her forever and they will kill her soon.

She remains in her home with some other female relatives and their children. They sent their husbands away weeks ago when the threats began. They say if the men had stayed they would certainly have been killed and then who would have taken care of them? They never imagined that women and children could be targets of such violence.

Ala'a says she has many good Shi'ite neighbors, but they too fear the militia, which tells them not to associate with Sunnis.

Captain Morales says his men have detained a total of 10 suspects and none are likely to be released anytime soon. But he cautions that senior leaders remain on the loose and that his unit is continuing to work to make the area safer for all its residents - Sunni and Shi'ite - and end the troubling trend of sectarian intimidation and displacement.