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Displaced families return to ruins in Iraqi province

Times Staff Writer

After the gunfire and explosions, after the panicked flight to an unfamiliar town, the Kadims had one more shock in store: the homecoming.

When the family of 12 returned to Hay Askari in mid-July, little remained of the prosperous market village they remembered from a year ago. Every facade had been sprayed with bullets. Entire blocks had been reduced to charred shells. In a daze, they picked out the place where their house had stood. All that remained was a pile of rubble.

“We were all crying,” said Salar Kadim, the head of the family.

When Iraq plunged into civil war in 2006, Hay Askari was caught on the front line between the country’s two main Muslim sects. Sunni Arab militants pushed into the village from the north, and Shiite Muslim fighters fought back from the south. Hundreds of families of both sects fled.

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The return of about 230 of the families since June is a sign of the uncertain calm taking hold in some of Iraq’s most treacherous corners. Whether the peace lasts, however, hinges on whether Iraq’s traumatized communities can set aside their hurt, whether there will be sufficient forces to protect them, and whether the government can provide the financial help they need to start over. Already, the government’s attempts to compensate for losses are mired in allegations of corruption and sectarian bias.

More than 2 million people have been displaced in Iraq, about half of them since February 2006, when the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra unleashed waves of retaliatory killing.

Here in Diyala province east of Baghdad, residents make up nearly 20% of Iraqis displaced in the last two years, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Local officials estimate that about 3,000 families -- no more than 18,000 people -- have returned home.

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Sunni militants loyal to the group Al Qaeda in Iraq centered their self-styled Islamic caliphate in religiously mixed Diyala after they were driven out of Fallouja in 2004. Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and the rival Shiite Badr Organization are also active in the province.

Residents of Hay Askari say hundreds of mortar rounds and thousands of bullets were fired, and the militants blew up abandoned homes to prevent their owners’ return. But no one speaks of how many died here; the toll is too painful to tally.

In a low monotone, Kadim, a Shiite, described his loss.

“We put all of our savings into that house,” the retired trucker said. “The house had five bedrooms, two living rooms and a kitchen. When we came back, the house was leveled. . . . Even the furniture was buried under the rubble.”

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As U.S. and Iraqi forces press another campaign to drive militants from their remaining hide-outs in Diyala, officers are encouraging the displaced to go home.

“We just want people to go back to their normal lives,” said Col. Ali Mahmoud, commander of the Iraqi army battalion responsible for the Khan Bani Saad district, which includes Hay Askari. “One of the main goals of the terrorists was to keep people from their homes. By bringing them back to their areas, we will deal a death blow to the terrorists.”

In some parts of Diyala, families who have tried to return have been threatened. Mahmoud deployed extra forces to prevent that from happening in his district.

“All the families that are coming back are living peacefully,” Mahmoud said. “What they need help with is the financial side.”

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The Iraqi government is promising to distribute 7 million dinars (about $6,000) in rebuilding assistance to each family that lost a home. But the process is painfully slow. Just over 1,050 Diyala families -- about a tenth of those who have applied since November -- have received checks.

“We went to the [district council] 100 times asking about the compensation,” said Kadim, who is renting a house around the corner from his former home. “They tell us they don’t have the money.”

Asked whether the check will be enough, he snorts with laughter.

“We need 60 or 70 million dinars, at least,” he said. But if the money comes, he will use it to begin clearing away the rubble.

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“God will take care of the rest,” said Kadim’s wife, Amouna Abbas, cradling a sleepy grandchild in a yard strewn with toys.

Those still waiting for their checks accuse officials of favoring their own sects and tribes, or of pocketing the money. Officials acknowledge that may be part of the problem. But the fear of corruption has yielded a cumbersome bureaucracy under which claims must be verified multiple times at the local, provincial and national levels.

The man responsible for processing Diyala’s claims is Adnan Khalmis, a pallid-looking lawyer who works out of a cramped office tucked away in the provincial Governance Center in Baqubah. With the help of two assistants, he reads through every file, meets with each applicant and writes out every check by hand. His office was so crowded one recent afternoon that it was hard to spot him amid the agitated throng pressing around his desk.

“I am an ordinary man, and look at the work I have,” he said, waving at a stack of pink and yellow folders with checks attached. “So you can imagine the number of claims the deputy to the minister has to deal with from all of Iraq.”

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Those houses that weren’t destroyed by the insurgents or the U.S. forces that pursued them are often inhabited by displaced members of the opposite sect, creating a tangle of homelessness that will be difficult to unravel. U.S. and Iraqi officials in Diyala are encouraging tribal chiefs to contact their counterparts in other areas about returning families to their places of origin. But officials in Baghdad are growing impatient and have threatened to send in troops to evict squatters.

The returning families need more than a place to live; they need a means to support themselves. Many of them are farmers whose orchards were destroyed in the fighting. A severe drought is compounding their difficulties.

“The area is secure, and our security forces are becoming stronger day by day,” said Abdullah Geitan, a Shiite who had nine relatives killed in the fighting. He returned to the village of Aitha in June after nearly two years away.

“Our biggest problem now is that there is no water,” he said. All that is left in the canal he uses to irrigate his corn field is a layer of green-tinged sludge.

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Already, frustration is building over the lack of jobs and services in these ravaged communities. Parts of the district are without running water for up to 10 days at a time; there are constant blackouts, and sewage pools in the streets.

“I just moved back to the area, but now I am thinking of going back to Baghdad because the conditions are so bad here,” said Ahmed Mohammed, a former civil servant who declined to disclose his sect.

To inject cash into the community and help keep out insurgents after the additional Iraqi forces deployed for the latest operation leave, the U.S. military is hiring locals to man checkpoints for about $10 a day.

In Hay Askari, where Sunnis and Shiites were both victimized, the two sects share duties at the checkpoints. But in nearby Aitha, where Shiites accuse Sunni neighbors of helping to run them out of the village, they refuse to work together.

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Kadim has no patience with such sentiments.

“There is no difference between us,” he said. “We are all Muslims.”

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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