BAQUBA â€” As the death squads’ grim threats began to mount against Shiite families in the Mafraq neighbourhood of Baqouba, north of Baghdad, fewer and fewer people attended their local prayer hall.
Soon, the only members of the embattled Shiite community to brave the narrow streets of this religiously-mixed quarter to come to worship were the caretaker and the muezzin who made the call to prayer.
Both men were eventually shot dead and then finally, four months ago, Sunni extremists planted a bomb in the mosque and blew it apart, ripping the heart out of the neighbourhood and triggering a panicked exodus.
The destruction of Mafraq’s shrine was a repetition in miniature of a more famous attack, February’s demolition of the golden domed mosque in Samarra, a revered shrine among Iraq’s Shiite population.
That attack triggered a sectarian dirty war, with week after week of bombings and murders that have poisoned the lives of Iraqis in mixed Sunni-Shiite quarters like Mafraq, and driven 40,000 families â€” 240,000 people â€” from their homes.
Nowhere is this conflict more sharp than in Baqouba, the provincial seat of Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.
“There are lots of families that have left either by force or just out of fear of being harmed,” said Umm Ahmed, a Sunni elementary school teacher.
Every day now her work at the school involves helping Shiite families fill out the paperwork to transfer their children out of the district.
Officials at the ministry of migration and displacement say the number of those fleeing Baqouba to less violent regions, where they hope to live only among members of their own sect, is rising steadily.
“We expect this number to increase, especially in Baqouba, because right now there is a lot of violence there and a lot of families are leaving,” said a ministry official when he issued the latest refugee figures on Thursday.
Across Diyala, Sunni insurgents and Shiite factios are attacking civilians and forcing them to leave the lush agricultural province once famed for its date palms and orange groves.
“Hundreds of Shiite families have been displaced from Tahrir neighbourhood alone, and due to threats and no more than eight remain,” said Major General Ahmed Juburi, deputy interior minister for police affairs.
He added that the same was happening in other neighbourhoods of the city like Yarmuk and Mufraq as armed gangs threatened people with death.
In some cases families have packed up their belongings and fled the province, only to be stopped on the highway by gunmen, dragged from their cars and cut down in a hail of bullets.
Part of the reasons for Diyala’s suffering is that, after Baghdad province, it has one of the most mixed populations in Iraq, split near equally between Sunnis and Shiites, with a smattering of Kurds.
Diyala has become a hunting ground for Sunni extremists, including Al Qaeda in Iraq.
It was among the palm groves of the province that Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was run to the ground by US forces and killed with a pair of 500 pound bombs.
His insurgent network remains in place, however, and on Wednesday US troops launched a raid against a building in Mufraq that was thought to hide Al Qaeda members. Four suspects and four women were killed.
“Armed groups leave threatening notes for Shiite families saying that anyone who stays in the neighbourhood will be killed or a member of their families will be killed,” said Muhammed Khaled, a Sunni from the Tahrir neighbourhood that once had hundreds of Shiite residents.
“Or they just plant a bomb in front of your house,” he added.
Muayyad Abdul Sattar is a Shiite still living in the area. He knows many people who have been killed or had bombs planted in front of their homes.
“I’ll never forget when I met a man who worked as janitor in the hospital and he told me how one day he found an envelope at his door containing a threatening letter, a CD-ROM showing executions and a bullet casing,” he said.
“They left the next day with just a few possessions and then the other people of the neighbourhood came, broke into their place and took the rest of their stuff,” he added.
Umm Ahmed, the school- teacher, maintained that there may have been other reasons that some of these people were forced out of the neighbourhood besides just being Shiite.
“What I hear when I ask about why a family had leave, is that one of their members had ties with the Badr Organisation,” she said, referring to the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful political party.
In some cases, though, it’s not so much a victim’s political affiliations that lead to a killing but his tribal affiliations.
“The Beni Tamim tribe has lost many of its members, including children and old people, because the governor is from this tribe,” said Hussein Shimari, a Shiite forced to flee Baqouba.
“It is the same thing the Bawi tribe suffers from,” he added.
“It is a Shiite tribe that has the chief of police as one of its members.” On Wednesday three brothers working at an electronic goods store in the Baqouba main souk were shot dead by gunmen for no apparent reason other than they were Shiites from the Bawi tribe.
Many of the Bawi and the Shimar tribe, like Hussein, have left for Karbala, a Shiite shrine city south of Baghdad, while others have headed east for towns like Mandali, in friendlier territory near the Iranian border.