Iraq's unprecedented turning point in relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims can be traced directly to February 22, 2006, when a revered Shia shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, was bombed. Sunni extremists were blamed for the act.
The attack, which was repeated last month, spawned days of reprisals that damaged or destroyed dozens of mosques, killed hundreds and made thousands of families homeless, compounding the displacement problem created after the U.S.-led invasion.
As a result, a new phenomenon has emerged: Sunni and Shia families are swapping houses. Estate agents are providing lists of available properties, facilitating swap arrangements.
"It is hard to leave the house you built and in which you spent your life raising your children, and which contains memories in every corner, but death is dreadful," said bearded Najim, a 52-year-old Shia pensioner and father of six boys.
"When I heard about house exchanges, I immediately started looking for a displaced Sunni family from Baghdad to take my house in Dora. After weeks of inquiries, I found an estate agent with a list of uprooted Sunni families looking to swap properties," he said.
"After a search of nearly a month, I was introduced to Najim at an estate agent's office and we each agreed to take the other's house for six months, but we left our furniture in our houses because many people have been attacked by militants while moving household belongings," said Khayon, a 49-year-old father of three girls.
According to their renewable deal, which was drafted at the estate agent's office, the two families agreed to exchange their houses until the security situation improves.
"House swaps are booming," said an estate agent in Dora who arranged the Najim-Khayon deal but who did not want to be named for security reasons. "Since houses prices are declining due to the deteriorated security situation, families can't sell their houses and prefer to swap," he added.
He went on to say that since the beginning of the year he had housed 211 uprooted Sunni families in Dora and its suburbs "without any problems and all sides are satisfied."
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), since February 2006 about 822,810 Iraqis have been prompted to leave their homes and move to new areas in search of basic security. The figure is higher than the estimated figure of 600,000 issued by the Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement.
Of these, about 40,000 families -- or about 200,000 people -- have fled their homes in Baghdad, a senior official at the ministry told IRIN -- on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to disclose numbers.
Other families, doubtful of such swap-deals or suspicious of the estate agents, try to find people with whom they can exchange their houses by putting out the word to relatives and family friends.
Some do not swap their homes but find families to stay in them before they flee. But there have also been problems.
Nadhim Mahmoud Ali, a 59-year-old Shia doctor, fled his house in Baghdad's western Sunni suburb of Amiriyah in January and moved to the country's northern autonomous region of Kurdistan after finding a Sunni family to stay in his house.
"But a month later, he [the head of the Sunni family] started calling us asking permission to open all the rooms in the house, claiming that they don't have enough rooms. And then he started asking permission to sell our furniture to feed his family," Ali said.
"The latest shock was last month when he gave me a call to say that the Iraqi Islamic Party [an influential Sunni political group] had given him the house as it belonged to a Shia family and he was an uprooted Sunni," he added.
Similarly, houses of uprooted Sunni families have been turned over to displaced Shia families by the Mahdi army, a Shia militia loyal to radical religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr that has been blamed for sectarian killings.
On February 24 the Iraqi government, which says it is seeking to end sectarian violence and the illegal seizure of homes in the capital, launched a new security crackdown called "Operation Imposing Law," in conjunction with U.S. forces, to try to achieve its aims.
In a bid to stop the sectarian bloodletting, the government said those who had occupied the homes of displaced families would be given 15 days to return the properties to their original owners or prove they had permission to be there.
However, as the security operation enters its seventh month, there is little evidence so far of many people returning to their rightful homes.
© IRIN 2007
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