Baghdad Neighborhoods: Processes of Resilience against the Internally-reflected Conflict of 2006–2008

Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”

By Namariq Al-Rawi

Foucault described war as a force for generating and promoting new ways of living, and such interventions require a geographic medium, thus cities act as the stage to the events showing human power. The case of Baghdad during the war in and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003 shows a city that went through a chronic yet internally reflected conflict that forced homogeneity on its 89 heterogeneous neighborhoods through different brutal acts of sovereignty issues and security measures. However, it also went through processes of resilience in its neighborhoods throughout the different phases of the conflict. During that time, ethnicity was politicized, and communities were targeted based on religious affiliation by antagonistic militias that emerged to reflect political conflicts in the city.

By the year 2005, Sunni and Shi’ite militias were able to impose their dominance on the streets. Eventually, neighborhoods’ demographics began to change with the increase in violence. Still, the event that enflamed a sectarian-based conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites was the bombings of the Shi’ites’ holy sacred al-Askari shrine in Samara in February 2006, thus allowing the militias to use sectarianism as an instrument to expand their territorial claims in the neighborhoods of Baghdad. This resulted in a period of continuous and deliberate physical and socio-political disruption lasting until 2008, a period that has been referred to by Iraqis since then as “al-ta’ifiyah”, meaning ‘sectarianism’.

(Source: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, 2010)

Soon whole communities in Baghdad were associated with sectarian identity, which turned their members into living targets for violence serving political agendas. This created an unbalanced physical and social distribution of housing in the city, as houses were evicted and families expelled from conflicted areas. By 2007, about 700,000 Iraqis were internally displaced, while 450,000 individuals were moving within Baghdad itself.

These events encouraged the creation of a strategy of gated communities’ as the most suitable security measure against insurgency and sectarian violence. It is estimated that in Baghdad alone 44 walls and 50 fixed checkpoints and various other security measures were erected, distorting the urban fabric and causing social confusion of spatial practices in the city [3]. Only eleven percent of Baghdad’s inhabitants were able to access most of the city’s neighborhoods freely, due to insecurity, statelessness, terroristic attacks and acts of sectarianism by the dominant militias through assassinations, random checkpoints, and forced displacement. By the end of the year, violence decreased, but the overall shift in the social fabric of Baghdad was severe; neighborhoods had transformed from quarters of mixed ethnoreligious groups working together as the majority in the societal settings of Baghdad into an uneven domination of the two main religious sects, Sunnis and Shiites. The subsequently generated, marginalized minorities inside the city, including religiously mixed families, don’t play a role.

Sectarianism has certainly affected Baghdad socially to the extent that is has become a milestone in Iraqis’ timeline. It is common to hear someone reciting an event and linking it to the term “al-ta’ifiyah” as an indication of when it occurred, such as, “I got married during al-ta’ifiyah,” or, “I graduated in al-ta’ifiyah,” or even, “I had my first child during al-ta’ifiyah.” At that time, conflictual practices were degrading the power of society. They did this by overwhelming neighborhoods in order to fracture their communities’ solidarity and diminish the emotions and meaning they had carried, only to speed the territorial predominance of political rivals. Still, Iraqis explicitly stressed in many occasions that the conflict is between the extremists of the two sects, not the sects as a whole. Yet, the civilians were the ones paying the price.

Heterogeneity was becoming more and more scarce. Internal and external movements of displacement were amplifying from all neighborhoods; families were forced to leave their houses due to direct threats from warring militias and fear of imposed sectarianism. At the same time, dominating militias were encouraging their own sect to stay in contested areas as well as promoting protection and safety for those fleeing other neighborhoods only in order to increase the sectarian population in one neighborhood. People started to question why their neighbor was being threatened or assassinated, and slowly began to associate ethno-religious doctrines with their neighborly networks.

Despite the violence, killings and sectarian segregations, these communities aspired to prevent sectarianism from taking over their neighborhoods. They developed conflict-resilience in the form of self-organized responses. They established, for instance, self-defense groups and set up their own checkpoints. Such responses were driven by attachment to their neighborhood, collective memories, and the unwillingness to abandon social bonds, as well as the presence of local non-sectarian religious leaders who assisted in deescalating tensions through forbidding sectarian attacks and declaring that the neighbors of different doctrines were under their protection.

Rebuilding neighborhoods after such brutal events was a slow process; with the gradual increase of security and militias abandoning neighborhoods, the government alleviated security measures and removed concrete walls in some streets to allow the use of their sidewalks for a partial normality of movement. Municipal services were restarted again after they were prevented by force during al-ta’ifiyah from providing any infrastructural services as a statement of supremacy by the dominant militias.

In order to reinforce the role of the state, security forces initiated a dialogue with the residents and religious leaders in neighborhoods to reassert their control, stability, and ability to protect residents from insurgents. Sectarian speech was toned down in political and religious platforms. Consequently, markets re-opened and commercial traffic increased, giving a feeling of safety which induced the displaced to return.

(Source: Chiara Cruciati, 2017)

The act of returning to neighborhoods went through a process beginning with establishing contact with trustworthy neighbors to ask about the current situation of the neighborhood and whether the sectarian actors were still in control. Depending on positive responses from neighbors, the displaced were motived to take the next step. One member of the family, whether the father or the mother, would be sent to investigate whether the neighborhood would be safe for the entire family to resettle. They would then visit their house to check the damages, or if it was rented, they would talk to the landlord about the possibility of renting again. Still, they would repeat these visits frequently to check if they were confronted with suspicion. The displaced would be further encouraged to go back when they would see other displaced neighbors returning to their houses. Thus the process of returning would be made easier, as the former well-known social network gradually healed and rejuvenated.

Although the largest wave of sectarian violence started to fade in 2008, physical traces of al-taifiyah are still conspicuous in Baghdad’s neighborhoods. Most of them, until now, are enclosed with high concrete walls denying visual approachability. Residents’ and civil society’s efforts united in a resilient act of beautifying these standing witnesses of sectarian violence to spread optimism through socially integrative activities in the city. Campaigns organized by residents and civil society to paint the blast walls surrounding the neighborhoods of Baghdad are an example.

While neighborhoods are still accessed through defined checkpoints, and security measures are only lifted slowly, some of these neighborhoods are opening themselves up socially and spatially as a sign of reconciliation among the different groups through shared social practices, attracting and inviting  residents of other neighborhoods to be part of or imitate. Gradually the consequences of the complex conflict of fighting militias, statelessness, political corruption, terrorism, insecurity, manipulation of diversity, expulsion and denial of the right to one’s neighborhood are being overcome.


References and further reading

[1] Schofield, Julian; Zenko, Micah (2007): Designing a secure Iraq. A US policy prescription. In Third World Quarterly 25 (4), pp. 677–687. DOI: 10.1080/01436590410001678924.

[2] Mehta, Brinda J. (2013): ‘Walling’ Baghdad. Spatial dissonance and tactics of war. In International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies 7 (1), pp. 55–69. DOI: 10.1386/ijcis.7.1.55_1.

[3] Damluji, Mona (2010): “Securing Democracy in Iraq”. Sectarian Politics and Segregation in Baghdad, 2003-2007. In Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, pp. 71–87.


Namariq Al-Rawi is an architect and urban researcher of multiple activities; while doing her bachelor studies in architectural science at the German-Jordanian University, she was involved in many refugees-oriented projects and participated in the documentation of their informal settlements in Amman. She obtained her master’s degree from Stuttgart University in International Urban Studies with the main focus on “Integrated Urbanism and Sustainable Design” in 2017 after submitting her master’s dissertation entitled: “Urbicide in Baghdad, The Production and Effects of Spatial Disruption in the City with Particular Reference to Open Green Spaces,” which was chosen to be exhibited in the university’s annual exhibition of best master theses. Also, parallel to her studies, she worked as a teaching assistant for the seminars “Integrated Research and Design” and “Urban Ecology and Ecosystem Design,” and assisted in the publication of the book River. Space. Design: Planning Strategies, Methods and Projects for Urban Rivers.


Further articles in the series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War” on TRAFO:

Birgit Schäbler, Introduction: The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods, 28 August 2019.

Kevin Mazur, Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria, 4 September 2019.

Mazen Haidar, Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut, 11 September 2019.

Piotr Korduba, The Reconstruction of Warsaw: Between Abhorrence and Acceptance, 18 September 2019.

Paul Sigel, “More Beautiful than Ever Before!” Neighborhood-Rebuilding in Divided Germany as Political Propaganda during the Cold War, 25 September 2019.

Allam Al-Kazei, Beyond the Atomic Bombing: The Revival of Hiroshima’s Neighborhoods, 2 October 2019.

Mohammad Hassan Khani, War Emigration and its Impact on Post-War Reconstruction of Neighborhoods: A Case Study of Khorramshahr after the Iran-Iraq War, 17 October 2019.


Citation: Namariq Al-Rawi, Baghdad Neighborhoods: Processes of Resilience against the Internally-reflected Conflict of 2006–2008, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.10.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19840.


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