For Sunnis, an Uneasy Return Home
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
BAGHDAD -- Khalid al-Mashadani pounded on the white gate of his house.
Two years ago, he was among thousands of Sunnis driven out of Baghdad's Hurriyah neighborhood by Shiite militiamen in one of Iraq's worst eruptions of ethnic bloodletting. Shiite families soon occupied Sunni houses. In late September, Mashadani came back for the first time, along with Iraqi soldiers, determined to recover his property.
A Shiite man and his wife stepped out, their faces infused with fear, and said they were renting the house. Angrily, Mashadani informed them that he was the owner. "This is illegal," he shouted.
An Iraqi army officer ordered the family to report to a nearby military outpost, a step that could lead to their eviction.
"What do you want from us?" the wife pleaded.
Across Baghdad, Iraqis are trickling back to onetime sectarian killing zones, in an attempt to reclaim their houses and former lives. While Sunnis are emboldened by a sharp decrease in violence and protection from the Iraqi government, many wonder whether they can trust the predominantly Shiite security forces and whether they can resume living among neighbors who once sought to kill them.
"It will take a very strong law to bring Sunnis back to Hurriyah," said a senior Shiite police official who would give only the nickname Abu Ahmed. "As Iraqis, it is difficult for us to forget those who were killed. It needs a long time."
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, more than 5 million Iraqis -- one of five citizens -- have fled their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration. Only a small fraction have returned.
In Hurriyah, of the more than 7,000 Sunni families who fled in late 2006, roughly 325 have reclaimed their houses, mostly in the past month. A middle-class enclave in western Baghdad, Hurriyah is a sprawling jigsaw of tan mosques, shop fronts and modest houses.
U.N. officials and human rights groups are concerned that a speedy resettlement could touch off new strife, in part because sectarian segregation has helped to reduce violence. Already, Shiites who occupied Sunni houses are being pushed out, often by force, and returning Sunnis have come under attack. U.S. military officials, wary that a sudden influx of returnees could undermine security gains, say they are proceeding carefully.
"This will be a long and controlled process," said Col. William B. Hickman, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, which is working with Iraqi security forces to bring Sunnis back to Hurriyah.
As Mashadani, a former member of Iraq's parliament, walked away from his still-occupied house, his Shiite neighbors greeted him with smiles and handshakes. "We're waiting for you to come home," one woman said.