WASHINGTON — Every mile militants log in their warpath toward Baghdad is another reason for Majid al-Bahadli to worry.
Al-Bahadli lives in Seattle, but his five brothers, three sisters and 38 nieces and nephews remain in the Iraqi capital, which al-Bahadli left more than two decades ago. So as forces aligned with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ravaged his homeland in the past weeks, he focused less on politics and more on those fleeing the fighting.
“If you are a Christian, if you are a Muslim, if you are a Jew and you don’t agree with their perspective, they call you a heathen and they kill you,” said al-Bahadli, 47, who is Shiite.
Like al-Bahadli, many among the more than 200,000 Iraqi Americans watched in alarm in the past weeks as Islamic State militants conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. About one-fifth of the Iraqis in the United States have immigrated here since 2000, according to the Arab American Institute, meaning many watched the news with an eye out for at least one relative who might be in harm’s way.
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“Everybody’s freaking out,” al-Bahadli said. “I call people almost every day. We go to bed at 3 a.m. because we’re watching the news on Iraqi TV, worried what’s going to happen.” He expressed astonishment at how quickly the militants had pushed Iraq into chaos. “It’s like a dream — nobody even believes it,” he said.
The Islamic State militants, who are extremist Sunnis, have targeted Iraq’s Shiite community — about 60 percent of the country’s population — and claim they slaughtered 1,700 Shiite security forces in Tikrit last week. In interviews, Iraqi Shiites living in the United States voiced some of the greatest alarm about the crisis.
“We are afraid that what happened in 2006 will happen again,” said Zina, a Shiite woman who escaped Baghdad that year and then fled Irbil, in Kurdistan, in January 2013. She asked that her last name not be used for fear of reprisals. Zina, who is seeking asylum in Chicago, was referring to the 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra — widely believed to be the work of al-Qaida in Iraq — which accelerated sectarian bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites.
Most Iraqi Americans are not Shiite but Chaldean, or Iraqi Christian, according to the Arab American Institute, and about 150,000 of them live in the Detroit metropolitan area. Although there have been far fewer Christians in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Chaldeans near Detroit expressed concern for the small Christian community and Iraq’s old churches. The Islamic State has reportedly burned churches in Mosul, and Christians have fled to Kurdish villages.
Majid Aziz, a Chaldean living in Sterling Heights, Mich., came to the United States in 2010 after being kidnapped for 20 days by Sunni extremists and serving briefly as an interpreter for U.S. Marines in Iraq.
Today, he wants Sunnis and Shiites to lay down their weapons. “If something happens between them, the people will kill each of us without any stop,” Aziz said. “What’s happening now is revenge.”
Kurdish Americans view the events in Iraq differently, as Islamic State forces have spared Kurdistan from their wrath. In Nashville, Tenn., home to 15,000 Kurdish Americans, mostly from Iraq — many of whom shop at Kurdish bakeries and markets in what is known as Little Kurdistan — Remziya Sulyeman, 29, a Kurdish community leader, said he viewed the chaos as an opening, even if filled with risk.
“It’s pretty much the perfect opportunity for an independent Kurdistan,” he said. “We also know that this new shift in the landscape is, in a way, very dangerous.”