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The revenge spiral is taking a dramatic toll. In December three Sunni brothers from Washash who belonged to the extremist, virulently anti-Shi'ite Salafi sect were gunned down just outside the neighborhood. The family sought retribution. On a subsequent evening, say witnesses, a mob of 15 gunmen, all relatives and friends of the three dead brothers, surrounded the house of popular Shi'ite clergyman Sheik Razzaq. A frail man in his 50s with a white skullcap and a ready smile, Razzaq had tried to stem the tide of sectarian hatred in the neighborhood, even accepting both Sunni and Shi'ite children into his Koran study classes. Sunni extremists found his message of tolerance threatening. "I was sitting with my wife and son and heard someone call out to me from the gate," recalls Razzaq. "As I walked to the door, my wife came up and put a woolen shawl on my shoulders. Next thing I knew, they fired at us through the door." Incredibly, Razzaq was untouched. But his wife Um Hussain lay dying, with 16 bullets in her body, and his son was left paralyzed from his wounds. After the shooting, the Sunni mob went to their mosque and announced over the minaret's loudspeaker, "Allah is great. We have killed the infidel." Razzaq shakes his head as he explains, "I'm a Shi'ite. My wife was a Sunni."
To this day, Razzaq doesn't know whether he was attacked solely out of revenge for the Salafi brothers' killing or his assassination had already been planned. Regardless, the killings then escalated. At least 33 people--Sunni and Shi'ite alike--have been killed in Washash this year, and the pace seems to be picking up. One of the latest victims was Shi'ite house painter Ali Jeri, whose death was especially painful to the neighborhood. Jeri was known as a kind and wise mediator who had many Sunni friends. Three gunmen pulled up in a car while he was painting and shot him in front of his child. Not long before that, Jeri had told his brother Ibrahim, "If I am killed because I am known as a religious man and a friend to many, so be it." That sentiment didn't resonate for long. In retaliation, seven Sunnis were murdered. Washash residents assume that Shi'ite militiamen did the killing.
These days Sunni and Shi'ite friends still sometimes sit together in the cafés, but the carefree ways of the past are gone. "Beneath our smiles, our hearts have closed," says a former army officer, a Sunni. "We no longer trust them, nor do they trust us." Residents believe the killers come from outside Washash, but they know there are informers within. Armed Shi'ite vigilantes patrol the streets, questioning strangers. Because Shi'ites are in the majority in Washash, the Sunnis tend to suffer more. Twenty-five Sunni men disappeared into police custody on Aug. 12, according to human-rights activists, who say the security forces are heavily infiltrated by the Shi'ite militia. No record exists of the arrests.