Back to Baghdad

Returnees Find a Capital Transformed

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 23, 2007

BAGHDAD, Nov. 22 -- Iraqis are returning to their homeland by the hundreds each day, by bus, car and plane, encouraged by weeks of decreased violence and increased security, or compelled by visa and residency restrictions in neighboring countries and the depletion of their savings.

Those returning make up only a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But they represent the largest number of returnees since February 2006, when sectarian violence began to rise dramatically, speeding the exodus from Iraq.

Many find a Baghdad they no longer recognize, a city altered by blast walls and sectarian rifts. Under the improved security, Iraqis are gingerly testing how far their new liberties allow them to go. But they are also facing many barriers, geographical and psychological, hardened by violence and mistrust.

Days after she returned from Syria, 23-year-old Melal al-Zubaidi and a friend went to the market on a pleasant night to eat ice cream. It was a short walk, yet unthinkable only a month ago for a woman in the capital. Still, her parents were nervous, and Zubaidi wore a head scarf and an ankle-length skirt to avoid angering Islamic extremists.

The Zubaidis, a Shiite Muslim family, have yet to pass another boundary. When they fled Iraq five months ago, a Sunni family took over their large house in Dora, a sprawling neighborhood in southern Baghdad. When the Zubaidis returned this month, they were too scared to ask the new occupants to leave. So they rented a small apartment in Mashtal, a mostly Shiite district.

"Security is better," said Melal al-Zubaidi, who has a degree in engineering. "But we still have fear inside ourselves."

Over the past two months, the level of nearly every type of violence -- car bombings, assassinations, suicide attacks -- has dropped from earlier this year. The downturn is a result of a confluence of factors: This year, 30,000 U.S. military reinforcements were funneled into Baghdad and other areas. Sunni tribes and insurgents turned against the al-Qaeda in Iraq insurgent group and partnered with U.S. forces to patrol neighborhoods and towns. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, seeking to improve his movement's image, ordered his Mahdi Army militia to freeze operations.

U.N. refugee officials estimate that 45,000 Iraqis returned from Syria last month, while Iraqi officials say 1,000 are arriving each day.

The returnees find a capital that offers greater freedom of movement. Shops are open later in many neighborhoods, and curfews have been reduced.

But those freedoms still come with constraints. Weddings, accompanied by honking cars and lively bands, are reappearing on the streets, but they still end before darkness falls. Visits to relatives and friends across Baghdad are more possible but still hinge on which group or sect controls each neighborhood. Some stores are selling alcohol, but fundamentalists watch for those who breach their codes.

Luay Hashimi, 31, returned to his house in Dora with his wife and three young children last month after fleeing to Syria nine months ago. Since then, 11 other relatives who also had left for Syria -- Sunnis like him -- have come back, too.

Hashimi no longer sees bodies in the street when he opens his front door. Sunni extremists no longer man checkpoints to search his vehicle for alcohol or signs of collaboration with the government or the Americans. Roads are being paved, and municipal workers are sprucing up parks and traffic circles. His patch of Dora is now a fortress, surrounded by tall blast walls that separate entire blocks.

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