IRAQIS FLEE BAGHDAD DISTRICT AS GUNMEN IMPOSE SHARIA LAW
Iraq Women's Rights Activists Increasingly Targeted by Militants
of Dora District in Baghdad have been fleeing after gunmen imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic Shariah law there.
"We have reports of more than 300 families fleeing the area over the past two weeks and this number is increasing daily," Fatah Ahmed, vice-president of the Iraq Aid Association (IAA), said.
The gunmen are particularly stringent when it comes to Christian families, who are forced to convert to Islam or pay huge taxes.
"We have left the area because we were being forced to live under strict Islamic laws. Men have to wear long beards and women veils, and the latter are not allowed to leave their homes without their husbands. Girls have been told they are forbidden to go to school after the summer vacation," said Haki Salam, 54, a resident of Dora who is now living as a displaced person on the outskirts of the capital.
"I was participating in a local association to help the district but it was closed and the manager killed by the Shia militia. Those who refuse to follow the strict [Islamic] law risk either having one of their relatives kidnapped or being murdered inside their own home," he said.
According to the IAA, non-governmental organizations have been banned from delivering aid inside the district, leaving hundreds of people without assistance.
"This neighborhood has been seriously affected by the daily clashes and now the situation will get much worse as the area is under militia control. Sometimes they want us to pay bribes to enter the district and this is unacceptable," Fatah Ahmed said.
"Many families, scared by the situation, have been abiding by the laws imposed by the gunmen to save their lives and prevent their children becoming displaced," Ahmed said. "We have been informed that in many parts of the district families are being forced to pay special taxes when leaving or entering the neighborhood.
One of the gunmen told IRIN that the move was designed to prevent a degradation of Islam and to stop Sunni insurgents from taking over the area again.
"We just want our country to follow the correct laws of Islam again and people to be prevented from becoming depraved. If Christians aren't happy with the situation they can leave any time," Abu Hussein, one of the gunmen responsible for local security, said.
A Christian who refused to be named for security reasons said his son had been kidnapped by gunmen who had demanded a ransom of $20,000 for his release.
"I'm now selling my house to pay the ransom and they told me that after paying, I would have to leave the area with my family, as Christians were not welcome. Only those who swear on the holy book [Koran] that they have converted to Islam can stay in Dora," he said.
"Last week they [the militia] killed everyone in the house next door because the inhabitants had refused to pay the taxes demanded and didn't want to convert to Islam. Among them were a child and two women," the resident said.
Dora police station said it had contacted the Ministry of Interior about the situation in the district but no action had yet been forthcoming, and with few policemen available they were unable to take control of security.
"We are awaiting the Ministry's word on this problem. We are aware of the serious attacks on local families, Christians and Muslims, who are being forced to live under Sharia and this is unacceptable," said Col Ahmed Shabander from Dora police station.
Shabander said the gunmen in Dora were from Shia militia bases. "Some of them were criminals and looters who had infiltrated the traditional militias to get money through kidnappings."
The Ministry of Interior said it was looking into the problem but refused to give details.
As no action has been taken against the gunmen, people are fleeing, selling their homes and cars and trying to find safer places in other parts of Baghdad or outside the capital city.
"Some residents have reported shortages of food supplies as most shops are closed, and they are scared to leave their houses. If no action is taken we will see people starving inside their own homes," the IAA's Ahmed said.
© IRIN 2007
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