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WITNESS - Basra family meeting shocks and awes Iraqi-Briton
Sat Dec 20, 2008 7:15pm EST
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Mohammed Abbas is a Baghdad-based correspondent for Reuters. He was born in Basra, Iraq, but emigrated with his parents to Britain when he was one year old in 1980. In the following story, he describes his experience returning to Basra and meeting family for the first time.
By Mohammed Abbas
BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - My family in Britain argues with the neighbors about noise, but for my cousins in Iraq, one of a host of less trivial grievances was their neighbors'' hospitality to cross-dressing al Qaeda fighters.
I met cousins, aunts and uncles for the first time on a recent trip to Basra in Iraq's Shi'ite south, which I had left 28 years ago to live in Britain. Some cousins looked like me and were about the same age, but our lives had been very different.
Basra was once the front line in Iraq's war with Iran and my Shi'ite aunt and her five children fled in the 1980s and went to live in western Anbar province, a mostly Sunni region.
My aunt told me the people there were very welcoming, until the sectarian blood-letting started shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
A stream of what looked like women in all-enveloping black robes, or abayas, would come to their neighbors'' door, then lift their veils to reveal bearded al Qaeda fighters.
The Sunni Islamist group and other Sunni insurgents, many smuggled in from neighboring countries, came to rule Anbar at the height of the anti-U.S. insurgency.
My cousins would have to let al Qaeda members into their homes and pretend to be Sunnis, and with a $700 "donation" in their pocket, the al Qaeda types would pretend to believe them.
The neighbors'' son went on to blow himself up in a botched suicide bombing, and his mother distributed sweets to celebrate his "martyrdom."
Eventually the sectarian hatred was so bad there were calls from mosque minarets for Sunnis to kill Shi'ites, and insurgents would come to my aunt's door asking for her sons. So the family fled again, back to Basra.
For another aunt, a Sunni, Basra was no refuge. Her husband's brother was kidnapped and held for ransom. He was returned severely beaten.
Until a government crackdown last March, the oil-rich and mostly Shi'ite city was largely run by militias and armed gangs.
Despite the sectarian violence, my mixed-sect family in Basra all got along. Many families in Iraq contain both Sunnis and Shi'ites, belying media representations of two mutually exclusive groups out for each other's blood.
But on the six-hour drive down from Baghdad, my hope that Basra would be the green city of palm trees and canals described to me by my parents gradually faded. Continued...
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