At a time of epic displacement, Fuad Khamis has done something extraordinary: He has moved back home.
“When I arrived, I was overwhelmed and frightened at the same time,” says Khamis, a Sunni Arab taxi driver from Baghdad’s religiously mixed Sadiya neighborhood.
His house was damaged and there wasn’t a piece of furniture left. But the father of five says his Shiite neighbors have welcomed him back with hugs and kisses.
Encouraged by a major security clampdown that began Feb. 13, and reassurances from his neighbors, Khamis is one of the first to test Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s recent pledge to reverse the tide of sectarian “cleansing” sweeping Baghdad and move tens of thousands of people back home.
Launched after years of unchecked violence between Sunni Arabs and Shiites, the program faces major hurdles, including a dearth of confidence among many of the city’s residents in the government’s ability to secure their neighborhoods.
“I believe in miracles and fairy tales, but not in the government’s intention or ability to move the displaced back into their homes,” says Hussein Azaidi, a Shiite Muslim with years of poverty etched on his face who now finds shelter in an abandoned school in Baghdad’s teeming Sadr City area.
Even if the government can convince families that their old neighborhoods are safe, there is no guarantee they can regain their homes. Many residences have been looted or torched, others commandeered by gunmen or occupied by families fleeing violence elsewhere.
Maliki has taken a tough line, labeling as terrorists everyone living in homes that were taken by force and informing parliament they would be arrested.
But the U.S. military, which is to contribute 17,500 troops to the Baghdad crackdown, says its forces won’t help the government evict squatters. U.S. officials believe it is a recipe for further abuses.
“It’s a no-win situation,” says Col. Douglass S. Heckman, senior U.S. advisor to the 9th Iraqi Army Division in east Baghdad.
Acknowledging the complications, Iraq’s Cabinet on Thursday gave occupants an extra two weeks to vacate the homes of the displaced or obtain written permission to remain.
Maliki’s government does not have the means to carry out a major resettlement program. Abdul Samad Sultan, minister of migration and displacement, expects many families will go home on their own once they see it is safe. They are being offered about $200 to help with the cost of the move. Apart from that, Sultan can only offer to issue badges allowing their return to contested areas and ask their erstwhile neighbors to write letters welcoming them back.
“I think that the Iraqi people have big hearts and can forgive the past,” Sultan says. “They have seen the results of violence.”
As many as 1,000 families have trickled back to areas such as Madaen, Shaab and Mahmoudiya, the Migration Ministry says. But they are a small portion of the total number of displaced.
Across Iraq, as many as 540,000 people have fled their homes since February 2006, when the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra unleashed waves of sectarian killing, according to a recent report by the Santa Monica-based International Medical Corps. About 80% of the displaced are from the greater Baghdad area, the group says.
The government’s resettlement plan hinges on the ability of the U.S.-backed army and police to clear out sectarian gunmen and maintain a presence so the criminals do not return, as they have in the past. But many residents say they feel safer under the protection of their sects’ militias than the government.
Azaidi lived most of his life in Balad Ruz, a religiously mixed town northeast of Baghdad. When he sent his son to the market one afternoon, Sunni Arab gunmen snatched the youth, beat him to a bloody mess and sent him home with a message: Leave within three days or suffer the consequences.
The next morning, Azaidi moved his family to Sadr City, the stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his powerful Al Mahdi militia.
It was Sadr’s representatives who found Azaidi a place to stay and helped him collect his monthly food ration.
But Sunnis accuse the same movement of driving them out of Sadr City and many formerly mixed districts. Hoping to avoid a showdown, Sadr officials have endorsed the security crackdown and invited Sunnis to return to Sadr City -- an offer few show any sign of accepting.
Warning under the door
Each wave of displacement has fueled the next as gunmen in one neighborhood force out members of the rival sect to make room for their co-religionists fleeing other districts.
Sabah Hassan, a Sunni police officer, ignored the first warning to leave the religiously mixed Amal neighborhood, which was slipped under his door last year, tucked into an envelope with a bullet. But when two of his brothers were abducted, he fled, leaving furniture, identification documents and a lifetime of memories behind.
The next day, Hassan sent his mother back to the house to collect a few belongings. But members of the local Sadr bureau had already moved in a displaced Shiite family, he said, and painted a warning on the wall: “Not to be rented or sold.”
In some neighborhoods, families have asked neighbors to keep an eye on their homes, or rented them out to members of the dominant sect in their area.
For months, Hussain Mansour held out as fellow Sunnis fled the whispered warnings, threatening letters, cruising gunmen and bullet-riddled bodies that appeared overnight in his mostly Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya.
A year ago, gunmen burst into the home of Mansour’s devout brother and shot him in the face in front of his family. Last summer, his uncle was gunned down as he carried groceries home. When Mansour went to the local Al Mahdi militiamen to ask for protection, he said most of them laughed.
“They were making fun of me, telling me they would skin me alive,” he said. “I have never been so afraid.”
Finally, a Shiite neighbor came to Mansour with a proposal. The man’s relatives lived in a Sunni part of Baghdad and had received an anonymous letter demanding that they leave. Why not swap houses?
Mansour, a sad-eyed shopkeeper whom friends had called “the last of the Mohicans,” didn’t think twice. But he is miserable with the arrangement.
His new home is smaller, the furniture is old, and the roof leaks. But it’s not just his house that he misses. “It’s my memories, my childhood, it’s where I grew up,” he says. “No one wants to bury his good memories.”
If Maliki’s plan works, Mansour says, he will be the first to move back. But he holds out little hope.
The plan targets only Baghdad residents forced from their homes since the Samarra bombing -- a small fraction of the total affected by decades of displacement stretching back to the darkest days of Saddam Hussein’s rule.
About 1.8 million of Iraq’s 26 million people have been internally displaced, and about 2 million others have fled to nearby countries, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which calls the exodus the largest movement of people in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948.
Many still waiting
Iraq’s government has had little success untangling previous rounds of displacement. Thousands of ethnic Kurds still live in squalid camps around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, waiting for authorities to resolve property disputes dating back to their relocation under Hussein’s policy of “Arabization,” introduced in the 1970s.
In the mostly Shiite south, Sunni Arabs face mounting pressure from paramilitary groups such as Al Mahdi and the rival Badr Brigade.
Many have fled to Sunni-dominated cities in the center and north of Iraq but have struggled to adjust.
Humanitarian workers suggest that it would be more realistic to help the displaced find homes and jobs in their new communities than to try to send them home.
But, says Rafiq Tschannen, the International Organization for Migration’s chief for Iraq, “nobody has the courage to admit that it is likely to be permanent.”
Khamis, the taxi driver, is keeping his options open.
“Pain filled my heart,” he says, the day he left Sadiya after receiving a threatening letter. Now U.S. and Iraqi forces patrol the neighborhood.
If they stay, so will Khamis. Otherwise, he says, he will leave Iraq for good.
Times staff writers Louise Roug in Kirkuk, Suhail Ahmad, Saif Hameed and Zeena Kareem in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad and Basra contributed to this report.