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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Iraqi Housing Crisis

For Sunnis, An Uneasy Return Home
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...

One day last month, Ahmed Gizhar, 54, and wife Salwa Mizher, 45, walked into Farook Mosque, a Sunni shrine that is now an Iraqi army base. For two years, the couple occupied a Sunni house in Hurriyah. That morning, six Sunni men representing the owner gave them three days to leave. Gizhar came to the base to complain to the government that was backing his eviction.

"What can I do?" Gizhar asked 2nd Lt. Hussein Rahim, 38, a burly man with a thick mustache. "I am sick. We cannot afford to rent a house."

Gizhar, who needs a cane to walk, said he owned three houses in Khan Dari, a town north of Baghdad, but couldn't return because Sunni insurgents controlled the area. "If I go back, they will behead me," Gizhar said, crumpling into tears.

He bent over. His hands cupped his face, his body shook. "I hope to die. I hate my life. Death is better than living like this."

Gizhar demanded to know Rahim's sect, but the soldier would say only that he was "Iraqi..."

Kareem Abdullah, a senior Mahdi Army commander, said he welcomed "the good Sunni families" back to Hurriyah. His own neighbor had returned, he said. But another returnee suspected of being an insurgent fled after militiamen tried to kill him, he said.

Since Sadr announced a cease-fire last year, his force has gone underground. Many of his fighters, Abdullah said, have joined the police force and are monitoring the Sunni returnees.

"Of course, we will keep our eyes on them," said Abdullah, a tailor, who said he and his men had executed about 20 Sunnis during the expulsion of 2006. "We can't make the old mistakes again. The killers can't come back again."

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