For young Sunnis, a grim existence

Aamer Madhani
Chicago Tribune

BAGHDAD, Iraq--For the first time in more than a month, 19-year-old Mustafa al-Adhami ventured out of his home recently in his hardscrabble neighborhood, looking for a haircut.

As he and a friend walked to a nearby barbershop in the predominantly Sunni section of western Baghdad, they came upon the corpse of a young man they later learned had been dumped on the street a few hours earlier.

"The body was covered with a piece of cardboard, so my friend pushed it away a little to see if it was anyone we knew, but it wasn't anyone we could recognize," said al-Adhami, who rarely leaves home these days. "For Sunnis in Iraq, our destiny holds only two options: We either find a way to leave this country or we will be killed."

With that dire outlook, al-Adhami has become part of a growing population of young people who are living solitary lives as a result of the intractable violence plaguing the capital. As grisly insurgent bombings and sectarian killings keep mounting, many in Baghdad's younger generation wonder whether they are watching their youth slip away to a protracted war.

The ice cream shops, once a popular place for young men and women to discreetly check each other out, now shutter at sundown. The social clubs in tonier parts of Baghdad, where young people with the means would while away their Friday afternoons, are empty. And the shawarma joints near al-Adhami's university, once busy after-school hangouts, are desolate.

"Our lives have become lonely," al-Adhami said.

Al-Adhami, like other young Sunni men, said he most fears the Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army, which illegally patrol many neighborhoods in the capital, and the police force, which is notorious for its sectarian allegiances.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has called militias a bigger threat to Iraq's security than the Sunni-dominated insurgency, and U.S. officials have threatened to cut off funding for training of security forces if the Iraqi government does not purge sectarian elements. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has responded with a vague plan to stamp out sectarian tensions that is based on the formation of neighborhood committees in the capital.

For young men like al-Adhami, such pronouncements do little to bolster confidence.

Al-Adhami, an engineering student at the University of Technology across town in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood, said he hadn't attended a class yet in the 3-week-old semester. He so fears crossing through the checkpoints manned by police and militias along the way that he is considering transferring to a less prestigious college in his neighborhood.

Al-Adhami said the student body at his majority-Shiite school has become divided along sectarian lines. Shiite classmates he thought were his friends say things about Sunnis that make him shudder.

Like many young men in the Adhamiya neighborhood, a dangerous Sunni enclave plagued by bombings and indiscriminate killings, he can tick off the names of friends and acquaintances who have fallen victim to sectarian violence.

"After exams, two of my best friends, Omar and Mustafa, went out to celebrate their high marks," al-Adhami said. "They were never seen again. We think, like the others who have disappeared, that they were stopped by police or Mahdi Army at a checkpoint and because of their Sunni names they were killed."

He can count on one hand the times he has left his home since completing his first-year exams in June.

His parents, middle class by Iraqi standards, have dipped into their savings to pay for luxury items such as a computer, Internet access and a mobile phone for al-Adhami so he can call his friends and chat with them without leaving the house. His mother, who asked to be identified only as Umm Mustafa, said she also has tried to get her son a passport so he can leave the country, but she has had no luck.

"We worry about all our children," said Umm Mustafa, who also has two daughters. "But we worry most about our son, because it is the young men that they are targeting in the sectarian killings."

Saif Saad al-Dhahi, 25, says his mother nags him when he is even minutes late coming home from his job. On his 30-minute drive to and from work, she will call his mobile phone every few minutes to make sure he is safe, and she forbids him from leaving his house to see friends in the evenings.

While his mother's nagging irritates him, al-Dhahi said he knows she is right.

Mahdi Army soldiers have started patrolling his mixed neighborhood of Zayouna, and as a young Sunni man he knows he could be in trouble if he crosses the militiamen's path. In his neighborhood and others, the Mahdi Army sets up illegal checkpoints in view of the police, who do nothing to stop them, he said.

Al-Dhahi said that sometimes he and the young men on his street congregate in front of a small grocery that isn't more than 100 yards from his home. They usually limit their chatting to 10 or 15 minutes because they know their parents get nervous.

Most nights he whiles away his free time trimming his beard, watching television if the electricity is running and lying around thinking about how much better his life was a few years ago.

Al-Dhahi says he would like to get married, and he is saving to pay for a wedding to a woman he has not yet met.

Three years ago, when he was attending college for his physical education certificate, al-Dhahi said, he knew many attractive women.

"Now I know no girls because I can never go out to meet anyone," he said. "If I want to get married, I will probably have to have it arranged by my mother or a relative. I had always hoped to pick my own wife."

Zaid Nazer, 26, was lucky enough to find his bride-to-be more than a year ago, but because of the security situation he can spend little time with her.

Nazer, a Sunni Kurd, also lives in the mixed neighborhood of Zayouna, but his fiance lives in an Arab neighborhood along Haifa Street. For a Kurd, spending time in Haifa is risky, so his visits to her family's apartment are short and infrequent.

He had planned to get married more than six months ago, but the lack of security has set his plans awry. Nazer decided to close his mobile-phone shop earlier this year after a series of bombings targeted the busy commercial strip where his shop was located.

The situation left him without steady income for several months, so he had to put off the wedding.

He recently landed a job with a wireless carrier, Iraqna, that will require constant travel to the fairly peaceful Kurdish north. He would like to relocate there, but such a move would be difficult for his fiance, who does not speak Kurdish.

Nazer said he and his fiance constantly talk about their future. They find it depressing that they must have those talks over the phone when they live only miles apart, he said.

"I have been engaged to her more than a year, but we've only been out together for lunch once in all that time," Nazer said. "She is frustrated, and I am too. But she understands that there is nothing we can do with our lives in this situation."


(Chicago Tribune special correspondent Nadeem Majeed contributed to this report.)




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