The Power of Local Ties: Civilian Resistance to Sectarian Displacement in Iraq

In February 2006, Ahmed Sharif’s (names of individuals have been changed to preserve anonymity) quiet life in the Hayy al-Jamaa neighborhood of western Baghdad changed forever. Militants associated with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) bombed the Shiite al Askari shrine in Samara. Within days of the attack, reports indicate that the activities of militant groups affiliated with Shiite Islamist political factions had gained considerable strength across Baghdad. Al Qaeda and affiliated militias responded in kind, carving out havens of influence in eastern Baghdad, and displacing Shiite civilians en masse.

When violence reached Sharif’s neighborhood of Hayy al-Jamaa, however, its impact was confusing and difficult to understand. Nearly all the surrounding quarters were characterized by extreme violence. Sharif’s small corner of Hayy al-Jamaa —  caught between two cleavages of the conflict — seemed poised to witness a similar degree of violence and displacement. But, for reasons discussed in this paper, this small corner of the city was relatively resistant to the conflict. By most accounts, nearly 80 percent of Shiite residents and families remained in place. Throughout the rest of Hayy al-Jamaa, the opposite was true. Nearly all Shiites fled east to Shiite militia strongholds, or left Baghdad entirely for the relative safety of the country’s south.

What then explains Sharif’s neighborhood’s resistance to the tide of sectarian and ethnic violence that swept through Baghdad during that time? Why did the displacement of populations from neighborhoods take place in certain locations, but not others? Through what mechanisms and social practices were certain communities able to avoid this tide of violence? Based on quantitative modeling, as well as extensive fieldwork interviews conducted with Baghdad residents in roughly neighborhoods, this research proposes an answer rooted in the social history and composition of the urban landscape. The presence or absence of forced displacement can be traced to pre-conflict experiences of different neighborhoods, the depth of neighborly social ties, and the relative social cohesion of localities that experience violence.

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