The Exodus: 1.6m Iraqis have fled their country since the war

Iraq is in flight. Everywhere inside and outside the country, Iraqis who once lived in their own houses cower for safety six or seven to a room in hovels.

Many go after they have been threatened. Often they leave after receiving an envelope with a bullet inside and a scrawled note telling them to get out immediately. Others flee after a relative has been killed, believing they will be next.

Out of the population of 26 million, 1.6 million Iraqis have fled the country and a further 1.5 million are displaced within Iraq, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In Jordan alone there are 500,000 Iraqi refugees and a further 450,000 in Syria. In Syria alone they are arriving at the rate of 40,000 a month.

It is one of the largest long-term population movements in the Middle East since Israel expelled Palestinians in the 1940s. Few of the Iraqis taking flight now show any desire to return to their homes. The numbers compelled to take to the roads have risen dramatically this year with 365,000 new refugees since the bombing of the Shia shrine in Samara in February.

Rich and poor, both are vulnerable. "I'll need more than five bodyguards if I am to live in Baghdad," said one political leader who has left Iraq. "The police came to my antiques shop and drove me around Baghdad," said an antique dealer from the formerly well-off district of Mansur. "They wanted money or they'd charge me with illegal traffic in antiques. I gave them $5,000 [£2,650] in cash, closed my shop and went with my brother to Jordan the same night. I haven't been back."

One well-established consultant doctor escaped his kidnappers in Baghdad and fled to the Kurdish capital of Arbil where he reopened his surgery. Bakers, often Shias, have been frequently targeted. Some now make bread with a Kalashnikov rifle propped against the wall beside them. Many have left Sunni districts in some of which it has become difficult to buy bread.

Former pilots who are Sunni and served in the air force believed they were being singled out by Shia death squads because they might once have bombed Iran; many have fled to Jordan. Jordanian immigration authorities are more welcoming to Sunni than Shia Iraqis. The latter find it easier to go to Syria. Every day heavily laden buses leave Baghdad for Damascus.

All sorts of Iraqis are on the run. But the Christian minorities from Karada and Doura in Baghdad are also fast disappearing. Most of their churches are closed. Many leave the country while the better off try to rent expensive houses in Ain Kawa, a Christian neighbourhood in Arbil.

Nobody feels safe. Some 70,000 Kurds have taken flight from the largely Sunni Arab city of Mosul. Among their cruellest persecutors are Arabs, settled in Kurdish areas by Saddam Hussein over the past 30 years, who were in turn expelled by returning Kurds after the US invasion in 2003. In Basra, the great Shia city of the south, Sunni are getting out after a rash of assassinations.

Baghdad is breaking up into a dozen different cities, each under the control of its own militia. In Shia areas this usually means the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. In Sunni districts it means that the insurgents, who are also at war with the Americans, are taking over. The Sunnis control the south and south-west; the Shias the north and east.

The worst slaughter is happening in the towns on the outskirts of Baghdad where Sunnis and Shias live side by side. Shias are fleeing from Mahmoudiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, to Suwaira and Kut. The Iraqi army does little to help, and Shias complain that the US is more intent on attacking the Mehdi Army than rescuing villagers. According to one report from the Mahmoudiyah area: after two days of fighting a platoon of Iraqi soldiers "was dispatched from the Suwaira base to break the siege. They turned up for two hours and evacuated some of the women and children to the safe zone of Suwaira, but had to turn back as they were not fully equipped to handle the situation without [US] air support."

The Shias also accuse the US of attacking their own defensive lines. In Mahmoudiyah yesterday, 19 people were killed in a bombing and mortar assault blamed by the main Sunni bloc on the Mehdi Army.

Shias do have relatively safe areas to flee to (so far as any part of Iraq is safe) in east Baghdad or the Shia south of Iraq. But Sunni areas are beset so they may move only a few streets to a house they deem more secure. Otherwise they must leave the country.

Flight often brings a host of difficulties with it. Much of the Iraqi population is unemployed and depends on state-funded rations bought from a single, local grocery shop. A refugee in Baghdad cannot go to another shop even if he has taken up residence elsewhere. The lumbering state bureaucracy only shows flexibility on receipt of a bribe. Sometimes a man may move out of a district but still have his job there which he dare not give up (60 per cent of Iraqis are unemployed); 10 days ago, 14 Shia workers from the Shia town of Balad north of Baghdad were found with their throats cut in the nearby Sunni town of Dhuluiya where they had been working. In retaliation the Shias of Balad hunted down and killed 38 Sunnis.

An e-mail from a Sunni friend in Baghdad that I received in April is worth quoting in full. It reads in shaky English: "Yesterday the cousin of my step brother (as you know my father married two) killed by Badr [Shia militia] troops after three days of arresting and his body found thrown in the trash of al-Shula district. He is one of three people who were killed after heavy torture. They did nothing but they are Sunni people among the huge number of Shia people in the General Factory for Cotton in al-Qadamiyah district ... His family couldn't recognise his face but by the big wart on his left arm."

There is the total breakdown of law and order. Kidnappings are rife. Businessmen pay for the assassination of their rivals. Sunni militants kill women wearing trousers and men wearing shorts.

Rival Shia militias fight pitched battles for control of oilfields. American soldiers often shoot at anything. No wonder so many Iraqis have left their homes or fled their country.

The refugees' stories

MOHAMMED, SUNNI TRADER

Mohammed was living in the al-Jihad neighbourhood of west Baghdad. A self-confident, energetic man who was a small trader in motor parts and a driver, he does not frighten easily. But, two months ago, he decided he had no choice but to leave his pleasant home and is now living with his wife and three daughters in a single cramped room in the house of a friend.

Earlier this year, as sectarian killings increased after the destruction of the al-Askari mosque in February, he and his family fled to Syria for safety. Al-Jihad has four districts, only one of which is Sunni, and Mohammed was living in a Shia district which was increasingly dangerous for him.

Damascus was safe but too expensive. Mohammed went back to Baghdad. But when he got to his house there was bad news. His neighbours said that while he was away the Mehdi Army, the Shia militia, had come to his home. They had asked if he was Sunni or Shia. They were told he was a Sunni. They left a message saying Mohammed must go or he would be killed. He immediately took his family to the solidly Sunni al-Khadra quarter also in west Baghdad where he now lives.

LEILA MOHAMMED, SHIA MOTHER OF THREE

"Be gone by evening prayers or we will kill you," warned one of the four men who called at the house of Leila Mohammed, the mother of three children in the city of Baquba in strife-torn Diyala province north east of Baghdad. She and her family are Shia by religion and Kurdish by ethnic origin.

The men who threatened her were Sunni. One of them offered her children chocolate to find out the names of the men of the family.

Leila fled to Khanaqin, a Kurdish enclave also in Diyala. Her husband, Ahmed, who traded in fruit in the local market, said: "They threatened the Kurds and the Shia and told them to get out. Later, I went back to get our furniture but there was too much shooting and I was trapped in our house. I came away with nothing." He and his wife now live with nine other relatives in a three-room hovel in Khanaqin with no way of making a living.

MOHAMMED AL-MAWLA, REFUGEE IN SYRIA

Mohammed al-Mawla is adjusting to life in his new home as an Iraqi refugee living in Syria. He operates an internet café outside Damascus and sends his two children to Syrian schools. But al-Mawla, 42, fears the comfort he has found in Syria after escaping the violence in Iraq could quickly disappear if the money he has saved runs out, forcing him to leave his new home in search of work.

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