Family forced to flee their home as sectarian tensions in Iraq reach boiling point

When Sunni militants painted an “X” on the front of her house in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Um Ban knew she and her family would have to flee.

Her sister-in-law ran a beauty salon from the family home and in the eyes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, all who lived there were infidels.

“It was a message to us that the people running this salon were haram, or forbidden,” she says.

With her two-month old baby girl and three-year-old daughter in tow, Um Ban, her husband and five other family members packed their car and left, just days after ISIL swept into Iraq’s second largest city and took over.

“You cannot imagine the situation in Mosul,” says 22-year-old Um Ban, sitting in the sparse lounge room of her temporary home in the Baghdad neighbourhood of al-Ja’afar, her baby girl, Ghufran, cradled in her arms.

“They were trying to frighten us with psychological warfare, bullets were flying, cars were burnt out and there were bodies on the street – when we first arrived in Baghdad we could not sleep after all that we saw.”

With striking eyebrow tattoos above her large brown eyes, Um Ban says from the moment ISIL arrived, she was no longer allowed to walk on the streets with her face uncovered, regardless of the modest hijab she wears.

“If I cannot walk on the street, I no longer have a life,” she says.

Their 12-hour journey along the dirt back roads from Mosul to Baghdad was fraught with danger.

They encountered ISIL militants, heavily armed with black balaclavas covering their faces, who made them detour down another back road, further prolonging their trip before they made it to their country’s heavily fortified capital.

Yes, Um Ban says, she feels safer here. But for how long?

With large parts of the country in the hands of ISIL and other Sunni militant groups and Shiite militia massing around Baghdad in preparation for what many fear is an imminent ISIL assault, observers say sectarian tensions are close to boiling point.

Around 180 US special advisers are now believed to be on the ground in Iraq, advising the country’s military on its fight against the Sunni insurgents.

They are backed, according to reports in the US media, by Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles that on Friday began flying missions over Baghdad and other areas under threat.

There are several important deadlines looming for Iraq – the first is the start of the holy fasting month of Ramadan on Sunday and the next is Tuesday’s scheduled date for the opening of the new parliament.

For the second time in as many weeks, Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric has spoken out about the country’s ongoing crisis, urging the country’s leaders to choose a new prime minister before parliament opens next week.

Last week Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for Iraqis to fight against the Sunni insurgents, this week he urged political leaders to stick to the country’s constitutional timeline and fill the key positions of president (nominally Sunni), prime minister (nominally Shiite) and speaker (nominally Kurdish) quickly.

Al Sistani’s spokesman Abdul Mahdi Karbalai said during a Friday sermon that such a move would be “the beginning of the political solution that everyone is looking for”, Agence-France Presse reported.

Meanwhile in the strategic oil town of Baiji, security forces were in control inside and around the city’s refinery, locals told Fairfax Media by phone.

“The insurgents are attacking the refinery again and again but we have elite military fighters here, backed up by helicopters carrying out air strikes, so the security forces seem to be holding on,” said Sheikh Abdullah Jbouri.

While the soldiers were working to secure the refinery, Sunni tribal fighters and local police were securing the town, Sheikh Jbouri said.

No one should be fighting alongside ISIL, he insisted, regardless of how poorly Sunnis feel treated by the overtly sectarian government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“The insurgents are attacking what is sacred to us – this alone is motivating our people to fight,” he said. “In areas where ISIL is in control there is less than nothing.

“They have cut electricity, there is no fuel, there is no food, prices are high, hospitals are only offering limited services – they want to take us back to the ages of darkness, before Islam itself.”

Since the uprising began earlier this month, the United Nations estimates more than 1000 people have been killed and nearly 500,000 displaced.

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