Iraqis are being attacked and killed for returning to their homes

A young girl and her brother have lived in an abandoned building in Karrada for five years.
A young girl and her brother have lived in an abandoned building in Karrada for five years. Corinne Reilly / MCT

BAGHDAD — Haj Ali's family had been home for less than a month when a makeshift bomb blew off part of his garage. The message was clear: Go back to wherever you came from.

Two years ago, when Sunni Muslims began killing Shiites in Ali's west Baghdad neighborhood, he quickly gathered a few belongings and fled. Last month, his family returned home. They didn't stay long.

"We thought it was safe," Ali said. "Now I see that for us, home means death. There are still people who don't want us there."

Only a small fraction of the roughly 5 million Iraqis who've fled their neighborhoods in fear since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have gone back, although returns have picked up since the Iraqi government last month began urging people home.

In Baghdad, where most of the sectarian cleansing has taken place, about 8 percent of the people who moved within the country have gone back to their neighborhoods, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Many Iraqi families have returned to their old homes in peace, but a disturbing trend already is emerging: They're being targeted and attacked, and in some cases killed, for trying to go home. Some have been threatened. Others have found explosives tied to their front doors. Some have had their homes blown up.

The trend, along with an uptick in sectarian and ethnic violence in northern Iraq and growing tensions among rival Shiite factions in the south, is a worrisome development for American political and military leaders who're increasingly eager to declare victory in Iraq so more U.S. troops can be sent to Afghanistan.

Sectarian cleansing has helped to reduce the violence in Iraq to a four-year low, but the small number of returnees who've been targeted so far could be a warning that the violence could return, too.

"There are insurgents still remaining on all sides who don't want the situation to improve," said Bassim al Hassani, a member of the Iraqi parliament's committee on displacement. "So they are targeting a few to send a message to many."

There are no formal estimates of how many people have been attacked or killed for trying to return to their homes, but U.S. military officials, aid organizations and the Iraqi government acknowledge that some returnees are being targeted.

At least a few families coming home to Baghdad and Diyala province have been killed, an Oct. 1 study by the IOM reported. American commanders in several parts of the capital said the homes of some returnees have been targeted with explosives.

"It's not happening every day, but it is happening," said Army Capt. Dave Lombardo from Kennesaw, Ga., the commander of the 4th Infantry Division's Troop B, 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Hood, Texas, who oversees Baghdad's Khadraa neighborhood. "It's usually explosives taped up to people's front gates. It's an intimidation tactic."

In Ghazaliyah, a west Baghdad neighborhood where about 250 families have come home since Sept. 1, attacks on returnees are carried out or attempted about twice a week, said Lt. Col. John Hermeling, a native of Green Bay, Wis., the commander of the 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment from Fort Campbell, Ky.

In southern Ghazaliyah, an area once dominated by Sunni insurgents and al Qaida in Iraq, Shiite families have come home to makeshift bombs, military officials said. A few returnees' houses have been blown up, and at least one resettler has been killed, a Shiite who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting.

In other neighborhoods, returnees have been kidnapped, said Mazin al Ajaili, the head of the Baghdad city council's displacement committee.

"We are hearing of people coming home and finding letters with a bullet tucked in, or they find messages written on their doors," Ajaili said. "Sometimes one family member is killed so the rest will leave again."

The Brookings Institution began recording threats and attacks against returnees this summer, said Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow at the center-left Washington policy group, which uses on-the-ground researchers to track displaced Iraqis.

As the number of people returning home has increased, so has the targeting, Ferris said.

"We're hearing about some pretty direct threats — people getting phone calls or finding notes on their doors telling them they'll be harmed if they don't leave again. . . . But we're just getting individual anecdotes. It's still hard to say how widespread it is."

Brookings hasn't noticed that either sect — Sunni or Shiite — is being targeted more than the other, Ferris said. "I think it just depends on the neighborhood and who's in control."

At least some of the attacks targeting returnees may have more to do with simple economics than Iraq's sectarian divide. As families have fled, others have taken up their homes, often living rent-free in houses nicer than the ones they left. Understandably, Iraqis in that category are in no hurry to see mass returns.

"We think some of the attacks are probably coming from squatters who aren't ready to move out, so they try to scare people from coming back," said Capt. Thomas Melton of Shreveport, La., who oversees south Ghazaliyah as the commander of Troop A, 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment. "It makes sense."

Even if the attacks aren't widespread, they may already be achieving their aim. Bassim Salman, a policeman who fled Baghdad's Furat neighborhood in 2005, said he was preparing to go back until he heard that some returnees' homes had been burned down.

"Just two days ago, I heard a man was killed in Furat while he was cleaning out his house to bring his family back," Bassim said. "They say it is safe to return. But I won't go."

Despite the uncertainty, the Iraqi government is shutting down camps for the displaced, offering money to those who go home and opening centers across Baghdad where families can register for help resettling.

On Sept. 1, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite, ordered all squatters who've taken over homes of people who fled to get out.

When they're evicted, however, some squatters can't afford to pay for new housing. Rents have risen substantially since many of them first fled, and unemployment across Iraq hovers around 50 percent.

In some cases, squatters can't return to the homes they left because other squatters have moved into them. Many say their neighborhoods still are too dangerous to go back.

"A lot of the people who have been forced out to make way for the people coming home are angry," said Tahseen al Sheikhly, Iraq's civilian spokesman for Baghdad security operations. "Sometimes when a home is blown up, it is for revenge."

(Corinne Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this article.)


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