Middle East

Shia Meets Sunni in a Baghdad Park

An Iraqi soldier talks to youths as they queue outside al-Zawra park in central Baghdad during the Eid al-Adha festivities in December. (Photo: Khalil al-Murshidi / AFP-Getty Images)

Mohammed Omar Ali sits on a bench under a tree in al-Zawra park, looking around impatiently for any sign of his friend. Ali, 31, has not seen Ayad Murtadha for almost a year since he and his family, who are Shia Muslims, were forced to leave the Baghdad neighborhood where the two friends grew up together.

Murtadha, 32, is Sunni, but sectarianism has not affected his friendship with Ali. When the men finally reunite with tears, hugs, and non-stop conversation, it is clear that the capital's sectarian battles have failed to break the bond.

According to the United Nations refugee agency UNCHR, more than 700,000 Iraqis have been displaced by sectarian violence since 2006. Many of the capital's once mixed areas have become either purely Sunni or purely Shia after militias forced families out for belonging to the other religious branch of Islam.

Improved security in Baghdad has enabled Sunni and Shia friends once again to spend time together in safety. However, many are still reluctant to visit particular neighborhoods where one sect dominates and are instead choosing to meet in al-Zawra park.

"These get-togethers are the only thing that makes us optimistic about the future," said Murtadha.

Al-Zawra is a famous 10-square-kilometer park located near Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. The park's centralized location and the tight security in the area have made this a popular gathering point for Baghdad residents of all sects and ethnicities.

Lines of people waiting to enter the park stretch for hundreds of meters at weekends. Park officials say the number of visitors has soared from just a few thousand per month in early 2006 when violence was on the rise in the capital, to over 1.5 million in December 2007 when Iraq was celebrating the major holiday Eid al-Adha.

"The park is so well protected that it's very hard for militias or terrorists to infiltrate it," said the official.

Cars must pass through several checkpoints on the approaches to the park, and all visitors are searched before they enter.

Mohammad Sad, 27, a university student from the Sunni-dominated al-Adhamiyah neighborhood, said the park is the only place where people do not have to fear the militias based in other Baghdad neighborhoods.

Sad frequently meets up with Shia friends in the park.

"When you enter al-Zawra park, you have a special feeling," he said. "You feel like you are no longer in Baghdad because it is so mixed with people from different sects."

Sad said he took a position against Shia Muslims after he heard that the Mahdi Army—the powerful militia of the firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—was killing Sunnis.

"Sometimes I even hated my Shia friends," he said. "But when I thought about my childhood and my memories with them, I realized that they had nothing to do with what was happening."

For sociologist Ahmad Dhiya, these reunions are a positive sign that the country will survive sectarianism.

"Young people in Baghdad need a life without violence, and they're tired of the sectarianism that the various armed groups propagate," he said.

Dhiya said the park provides an important social outlet for Iraqis and believes it is helping to repair rifts among the capital's fractured population.

Some Baghdad residents interviewed by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting acknowledged that the sectarian violence has tainted relationships between Sunni and Shia.

Raid Jafar, a 30-year-old Shia from the Baya neighborhood, said that although he is happy to meet his Sunni friends in the park, he admitted that he does not trust Sunnis as much he did in the past.

Jafar said his feelings toward his Sunni friends changed after his brother was killed by Al Qaeda militants in a neighborhood called al-Sayidiyah.

"I was so angry that I thought seriously about killing any Sunni in revenge," he said.

He now tries to avoid talking about politics or his brother's death with his Sunni friends, instead concentrating on personal issues, gossip, and work.

Still, Jafar said that he hopes that sectarian rifts will heal and that "what is left of the relations between the two sects will be protected."

Others have similar hopes.

"There is a small bright light coming out from the darkness in Iraq," said Sad. "It is slowly getting bigger and brighter."

Bassim al-Shara is an I.W.P.R. contributor in Baghdad. This article originally appeared in the Iraqi Crisis Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. www.iwpr.net. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.