The five men had settled into the former “love shack” of Uday Hussein, sleeping on his king-size bed, smoking cigarettes beneath the garish painting over his wet bar, eating bread off the fine china.
“Mr. Bush is good,” said Salaam Atef, 31, one of the squatters at the home of the former Iraqi president’s son. “He is going to give us this house.”
No, he isn’t, said Capt. Chris Carter of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. “Go. One hour.”
For the first time since U.S. forces captured Baghdad in early April and ousted thousands of residents from homes around Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace, the troops are allowing people back into the neighborhoods. But the task of determining who lives where, who owns what, and who has no business in the area except thievery is proving tricky.
Along with returning residents have come squatters and looters, many of whom make their way past guards using faded, confusing 20-year-old residency cards belonging to relatives. Others simply climb over security walls. Many people show up at checkpoints with deeds and other paperwork that suggest they own homes in the area, but the papers are often old and unclear.
“It’s impossible right now to know for sure who’s who,” said one sergeant as he checked the ID’s of a crowd seeking reentry.
“Until we know, we’ll let them live there, but we try not to let them take anything out except clothing and things like that.
“Ali Babas” -- thieves -- “are still everywhere,” he said.
The mass eviction in the Al Karkh neighborhood was the only such action in the city. Commanders decided that the area presented a security threat to the thousands of troops at the palace complex, as well as to retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner and his staff, who are now based at the palace as they try to fashion a transitional government.
Conscious of growing criticism over the displaced Iraqis and concerned about their well-being, however, the Army has decided to allow the residents back, even though most of the area lacks running water and electricity, and civil-affairs units that specialize in handling civilian problems are not in place.
For now, foot soldiers are sorting out the myriad ownership and security issues left in the wake of war and the dissolution of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Some Iraqis who arrive at the checkpoint to the neighborhood carry papers showing that they once owned homes here, but they acknowledge that they haven’t lived in them for years because Hussein’s government confiscated their properties. Others say they were forced to sell their houses to the regime.
Although such people typically received only a fraction of what their homes were worth, the deeds to their properties nonetheless went to Hussein’s government. Under allied forces’ rules, that means they belong to the new Iraqi government.
“We told the soldiers our story,” said Mushriq Raouf, who owns a box factory and now may be facing a fight for the home he was forced to sell to the regime. “They said, ‘You can stay in the house -- for now.’ ”
In 1989, Raouf said, Hussein representatives came knocking at his door. He had lived on Street 13 since 1969. The soldiers, he said, handed him 145,000 dinars in exchange for his home, which was worth 500,000. They didn’t threaten him overtly.
“It was just like Michael Jackson said in his song: Beat it,” Raouf said with a sad chuckle. “There was fire in their eyes. Their meaning was very clear. We had 15 days to leave.”
A Republican Guard officer moved into his home, Raouf said, and the former homeowner, his wife and three children lived in an apartment for the next 14 years, unable to cobble together money for a new house.
A copy of the null deed got Raouf through the checkpoint, and he sipped coffee and smiled last week in the front yard he hadn’t lounged in for nearly a decade and a half.
“But what will happen in the future,” he said, “what will happen when they go over my papers, I don’t know.”
Azer Kazel, who unlike Raouf was living in the neighborhood right until the war, also returned home last week. But almost everything belonging to him and his family was gone.
His bed was reduced to fluff as looters tore through it looking for money. They stole everything, from his cupboard and kitchen sink to the balls from his billiard table, leaving the heavy piece of furniture apparently because they couldn’t carry it down the stairs. But for good measure, the thieves slashed its felt covering. “Ali Baba, he takes everything,” Kazel said.
Al Karkh is an upscale neighborhood by Iraqi standards, and the Hussein family, Republican Guard generals and other notables maintained residences, offices and a small jail and torture chamber here among the homes of terrified neighbors. Returning residents have told military investigators that screaming from the jail was part of the ambient sound of life here, like the chirp of the sparrows.
Because the neighborhood was well off, looters have hit nearly every house and continue to come back for more.
Mokbola Yahiya, 77, and her sister Maida, 75, left their home of 42 years more than two months ago. They were thrilled to return last week and relieved to see that no bombs had hit it. Then they entered and began sobbing.
Their silver spoons from a long-ago trip to Britain were gone, as were their teacups, even their sweet-smelling soaps. They went through their house in tears, then left before sundown.
“We want to live here, but we are scared,” Mokbola said.
“We are old ladies,” Maida added.
Although thieves continue to prey on the area, residents have begun to trust the U.S. troops, who have earned respect in part by handing out flour, sugar, padlocks and air conditioners from Hussein’s private stores. When alerted by residents, they chase off looters with warning shots.
The neighbors are still scared, but they are cautiously -- very cautiously -- optimistic about the possibility of their own safety and the end of a long, miserable era.
Ali Kamona, a retired mechanical engineer, came back Tuesday to his house for the first time since he was evicted. His air conditioner and a few other things were gone, but the locks and chains on his door had held. He had his home and his belongings but not yet his peace of mind. He decided to stay during the day but not the lightless nights.
On Thursday, he smiled and winked. “The American soldiers are very good, very good,” he said. “Tonight, I will stay.”