Image: Iraqi kids sit outside their home
Dusan Vranic  /  AP
Iraqi kids sit outside their home in Hurriyah neighborhood in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, March 18. Eighteen months after the tide turned in Baghdad, only a small number of Iraqis who were displaced by the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007 are coming back to their homes.
updated 3/25/2009 8:17:32 PM ET 2009-03-26T00:17:32

The streets are calmer now. The fighting between Shiites and Sunnis has largely ceased. But this is not a sign of normalcy in the Iraqi capital. It's fear that keeps the peace.

Only an estimated 16 percent of the mainly Sunni families forced by Shiite militiamen and death squads to flee their homes have dared to return.

It takes two sides to have a fight, and there's really only one side left in Baghdad after violence and fear turned parts of neighborhoods into ghost towns.

Families that have gone back are sometimes met with spray-painted threats and other forms of intimidation. "Back after a break, the Mahdi Army," is a Shiite militia's slogan — playing off the same words that Iraqi television uses as a lead-in to commercials.

The findings — based on statistics obtained by The Associated Press from U.S. and Iraqi officials as well as AP interviews in key Baghdad neighborhoods in recent weeks — are acknowledged by U.S. military commanders on the ground. And they point to a troubling prospect.

Baghdad much calmer
Baghdad has been much calmer since the massacres reached their peak in late 2006 and the first half of 2007. And a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday that attacks nationwide had fallen to their lowest level since the first months of the war.

In the capital, however, the calm has been achieved in part because the city is now ethnically divided. Shiites predominate. Sunnis have largely fled.

The situation is somewhat similar to Bosnia after the war of the 1990s — years of calm but no lasting political reconciliation after its populations divided into different regions and governments.

"Baghdad has been turned from a mixed city, about half of its population Shiite and the other half Sunni in 2003, into a Shiite city where the Sunni population may be as little as 10 to 15 percent," said Juan Cole, a prominent U.S. expert on Iraq.

No accurate census has been taken since the bloodletting. But Cole's estimates, backed up by AP observations and U.S. statistics, hold troubling implications for the future should Sunnis come back in greater numbers.

A Sunni government employee, Mohammed Abdul-Razzaq, fled his home in the Jihad neighborhood of west Baghdad for majority Sunni Amiriyah after Shiite militiamen threatened to kill him. Iraqi police last year forced out the squatters who had moved into his house, but he has no plans to return.

"Security is still fragile," Abdul-Razzaq said. "I was forced to flee once, and it can happen again. Next time they may kill me."

Ethnic divides remain
Most startlingly, the ethnic divides remain even though the Iraqi and U.S. militaries have driven Shiite militiamen and death squads off the streets.

That suggests Sunnis still do not trust Iraq's government to protect them in the long run. Their mistrust could hold the seeds of future bouts of violence, especially as the U.S. military begins to draw down this year.

"The potential for renewed sectarian violence is definitely there," said Capt. Nathan Williams, the U.S. military commander at Hurriyah, a northern Baghdad district that saw the worst sectarian bloodletting. "We believe if it restarts in Hurriyah, it will spread to the rest of the city."

Even more remote is the hope of restoring Baghdad's traditional character as a city where people can live together — though not always in harmony — regardless of faith or ethnicity.

Among the statistics obtained by the AP:

  • Only an estimated 50,000 of 300,000 displaced families — or 16 percent — have returned to their Baghdad homes, according to the U.S. military. Most are believed to be Sunnis.
  • In Hurriyah, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 families, most of them Sunnis, fled in 2006 and 2007. Of those, only 648 families — or 16 to 22 percent — have come back since September.

In addition, 350 to 400 of the displaced families have sold or rented their Hurriyah homes, suggesting they intend to stay away forever, said Maj. Hussein al-Qaissy, Hurriyah's Iraqi army commander.

Part of city emptied by violence
The violence has virtually emptied parts of the city, particularly on the mainly Sunni western side of the Tigris river. In Amiriyah, for example, 100 of the 252 Shiite families that fled are back. Roughly the same number of Shiite families, 250, fled Khadra, another western Baghdad area; only 70 have returned.

Baghdad's sectarian violence began as early as 2003 but picked up dramatically after suspected Sunni militants blew up a revered Shiite shrine north of the city in 2006. At its peak, dozens of bodies, some decapitated or with execution-style gun wounds, turned up at outlying areas of the city or in the Tigris each day.

Shiite militiamen who led the attacks against the Sunnis are largely thought to have won the sectarian conflict in the capital. The Sunnis, who are generally better off economically than the Shiites, largely fled to Jordan or Syria.

That has given Baghdad a distinctly Shiite character, which becomes obvious during the sect's religious holidays when traditional Shiite banners are hoisted over most of the city.

In Hurriyah, the signs of sectarian division are still stark.

Attacks on Iraqi and U.S. forces have been rare since they rid the neighborhood of Shiite militiamen and death squads and Sunni militants.

Most Sunni mosques remain closed
But most of the 18 Sunni mosques remain shut or in ruins. Some are now used as sleeping quarters for Iraqi troops, with attached rooms turned into offices.

A recent prayer held in a Sunni mosque to mark a major religious occasion attracted a meager 48 worshippers, according to Iraqi army Maj. Imad Rassoul.

Some returning families have been greeted with threats spray-painted on the walls of their homes, according to Williams, the U.S. Army captain stationed at Hurriyah.

The neighborhood also remains walled off, with access tightly controlled by Iraqi security forces. U.S. and Iraqi officials argue that removing the walls could erode some of the security gains made by allowing militants to move freely.

Resettlement has provoked 10 attacks, one deadly, since September. Half of these, according to Williams, involved families that had not coordinated their return with the Iraqi army as required.

Williams said he believes Hurriyah is now generally safe.

"It's a struggle," said Williams, who along with local tribal leaders recently tried to persuade Hurriyah refugees north of Baghdad to come back. "Our struggle here is to counter misconceptions about security in Hurriyah."

Going door-to-door to check on families
Williams' men go door-to-door to check on the families that returned to Hurriyah, pleading with them to report any intimidation or threats. He also offers grants of up to $3,000 to returning families to start a business.

In a hopeful sign, some of the returning Sunnis in Hurriyah and elsewhere in Baghdad say longtime Shiite neighbors extended a warm welcome.

"They said they could not do anything to help us when the Mahdi Army came to force us out," said Bassem Mahmoud, a 35-year-old father of two, speaking outside his Hurriyah home with his mother next to him. "They said they feared for their lives if they tried to help us."

Omar al-Jibouri, a taxi driver and father of three, said his Shiite neighbors in the Dora district of western Baghdad helped repair his damaged home when he returned a month ago.

"For a whole week after our return," he said, "they kept giving us food."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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