BAGHDAD – The message comes in the dead of night, a scrawled piece of paper slipped under the door: “If you don’t leave, we will behead you.” This is what remaining Iraqi Christians face and fear in Dora, Baghdad’s vortex of ethnic and confessional cleansing. Terrified residents, who insist on their anonymity, paint a picture of hell worthy of Hieronymus Bosch: “The good have all gone; only the savages remain.”

Dora is a middle-class neighborhood by the Tigris, predominantly Sunni, in southwest Baghdad. It’s a collection of small farms, groves, orchards and fruit gardens in essence peopled by two large tribes – al-Dulaimi and al-Jobouri. The groves extend all the way to Madan, and connect to other Baghdad neighborhoods. Some very comfortable houses – property of local sheikhs – are located in these farms. Saddam Hussein once had a house in Dora.

Dora is thus a perfect setting for the muqawama – the Sunni Arab resistance, as it is referred to by most Iraqis – to thrive; in Mao Zedong’s terms, the “sea” where the “fish” thrive. Residents identify the favorite guerrilla regions as the Elbu area, where “Shi’ites have always been killed,” Hura and Arab al-Jubour. So not only Christians are victims: according to non-official numbers, no fewer than 1,682 Shi’ites have been killed in Dora since 2003 – most of them on their pilgrimage to Karbala – and 894 have been kidnapped (and most subsequently killed).

During the months in 2002 when he was preparing for the real war in Iraq – after the inevitable US invasion – Saddam sent countless messengers to farmers in areas like Dora, and bought small plots of land everywhere. Then, in the middle of the night, Revolutionary Guards would come and bury loads of weapons and cash for the future resistance.

Zarqawi in the neighborhood

But Dora also became a haven for al-Qaeda in Iraq. Former bogeyman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, residents say, was always lurking in Dora. Sheikh Abu Risha – the leader of the Anbar Sovereignty Council who is fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq in the province – had already expelled them from Ramadi once, and also after the assault on Fallujah in late 2004. Their preferred destination was Dora.

This all ties with Saddam’s policies since he climbed to power in 1979. He expelled virtually all Shi’ites from west Baghdad. In the arc from north to west and southwest around Baghdad, there are only Sunnis. This has assured ample support for the Saddamist front in the resistance, and has also assured a “Sunni corridor” for the mobile, ever-morphing Salafi-jihadis.

The Salafi-jihadist front itself now comprises three main currents. There’s the Sururiyyah movement, which is a cocktail of Salafi Muslim Brotherhood fighters. There’s the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance – which is basically Hamas in Iraq. And there’s the Islamic Emirate of Iraq, which contains al-Qaeda in Iraq. The latter is responsible for the terror in Dora.

Residents identify a key terror figure as one Najra, a son of one of the Dora sheikhs – a former Ba’athist who has pledged his allegiance to al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the top man may be Sheikh Tahan al-Jubouri, who is very close to Abu al-Masri, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was reported killed (unconfirmed) recently.

A Dora resident says, “Everyone here can be a victim of random shootings; they attack people in the markets, or people walking in the streets.” A middle-class Sunni woman – with a Shi’ite husband – living in her own family’s house, not her husband’s, tells how her husband was attacked right in front of the house. Not only was he killed, she was forced to leave and now has resettled in another Baghdad neighborhood.

At the last count, in 1977 – before even the Iran-Iraq War – 1,684,000 Christians were living unmolested in Iraq. After the first Gulf War of 1991, 12 years of United Nations sanctions and the 2003 “shock and awe”, all that is known is that the remaining majority still lived in the neighborhoods of Dora and New Baghdad, including the 6,000 families who live near a church in Dora.

Residents say the horror stories started toward the end of 2004 – about the time of the assault on Fallujah – with attacks on five big churches plus another one in Mosul, which is considered by many in Iraq to be the first church ever built in the world. Iraqi governments tend to play down the confessional cleansing: according to official numbers, of 122 Christians assassinated since the US invasion in 2003, only 18 have been certified in Baghdad.

Yet since late 2005, “a lot of people” have left, residents say. “Now there is no market, no vegetables, no bakeries, everything is closed.” Indeed it is. During the day Dora is an eerie, ghostly shadow of its former garden incarnation. There’s no chance of seeing an unveiled woman in the streets on the way to buy groceries; if that’s the case, one resident says, kids riding bicycles force her to wear the hijab.

Members of a well-to-do family tell how they received the infamous “letter under the door.” The whole family left Dora for Shi’ite Kadhimiya – site of a revered shrine – and left the house empty; it has been noted by “scouts,” and is now probably occupied by Salafi-jihadis. Now they share a house with other families, paying the astronomical rent of 1 million dinars (almost US$10,000) a month.

Mizar Yalda, a 48-year-old priest, says that according to his calculations, 190 Dora residents have been kidnapped since the 2003 invasion, and have paid a collective ransom of more than $480,000.

Convert or else

If you are a Christian and you want to keep living in Dora, you must convert to Islam. Not only that, you must also cooperate with al-Qaeda in Iraq, and must accept al-Qaeda refugees into your house when they are trying to escape hot pursuit. If you refuse, you will be killed.

By some perverted math, al-Qaeda in Iraq has established that if you don’t want to convert, you must pay $1,600 per person – plus the assurance that you won’t denounce anything concerning al-Qaeda in Iraq’s activities. Residents confirm that “some people paid” and are still in Dora. But “some converted”; recently there has been talk of 24 men, six women and three girls who did so. What is certain is that the majority of Christians have left. Amel Zaya paid $7,600 to Jobouri to stay in Dora with her family, and also for “protection.” She now runs a restaurant.

So how is the US occupation army reacting to all this madness? The bombastic way. Less than two weeks ago, the Buaitha area of Dora was subjected to an artillery barrage and no fewer than 24 explosions from US Base Falcon – in broad daylight. There’s no evidence that al-Qaeda in Iraq has been debilitated by this “tactic” – not exactly the subtlest way to fight confessional cleansing and win hearts and minds.