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June 29, 2017

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Iraq family's flight reveals depth of Sunni grief

BAGHDAD--For nearly a decade Abu Omar has been fleeing Iraq's many conflicts, but they always seem to catch up to him.

In his Sunni family's ancestral home in Fallujah it was the heavy shelling — first by the Americans in 2004 and then again this past January, when the walls shook and the roof caved in over their heads. In the Baghdad neighborhood where they have twice sought refuge, it is the persistent fear of a late-night knock on the door by shadowy sectarian militias.

Abu Omar's grim odyssey is shared by countless members of Iraq's once-dominant Sunni minority, who feel maligned by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, hounded by its security forces and increasingly threatened, once again, by the militias that terrorized them during the darkest days of sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007.

Their grievances have metastasized since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and handed power to the long-oppressed Shiite majority. Their anger fueled the rampage of Sunni militants across northern and western Iraq this summer, and the militant onslaught has aggravated sectarian tensions elsewhere, again driving Iraq to the brink of civil war.

After a humiliating retreat from much of the north in June, the Iraqi military managed to halt the offensive by the Islamic State extremist group on the outskirts of Baghdad. But in the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in the heart of the capital, Abu Omar feels he is under a different kind of siege.

The patriarch of a 13-member family says he's afraid to let his sons leave Azamiyah because their names give them away as Sunni. "They hear Omar and Othman and right away think they are with Daesh," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. "The (Shiite) militias want to make trouble for anyone who is Sunni."

The family, which asked that their last name not be published for fear of harassment, first fled to Azamiyah from Fallujah in 2005, when U.S.-led forces launched a massive assault on the restive western town aimed at rooting out insurgents.

Two years later they returned to Fallujah, fleeing the sectarian violence then engulfing the capital, when Sunni and Shiite militants abducted and killed scores of people every day, leaving the streets littered with corpses, many bearing signs of torture.

The worst of the sectarian violence subsided in the following years under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who deployed the military against Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias and briefly united Iraqis under the banner of security.

But Sunnis, who supplied the country's rulers from Ottoman times until the 2003 invasion, say the grievances underpinning the insurgency — the discrimination, the mass arrests and the prosecution of top Sunni leaders — only grew worse, eventually paving the way for the militant takeover of nearly one-third of the country.

Late last year the Islamic State group and allied Sunni militants seized Fallujah, and in a grim repeat of 2005 the Iraqi military surrounded the city and began bombarding it. The shelling was even worse this time, Abu Omar said, and when the roof collapsed, he and his family returned to Baghdad — again seeking what can only be described as relative safety.

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