Iraqis are returning to their homeland by the hundreds each day, by bus, car and plane, encouraged by weeks of decreased violence and increased security, or compelled by visa and residency restrictions in neighboring countries and the depletion of their savings.
Those returning make up only a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But they represent the largest number of returnees since February 2006, when sectarian violence began to rise dramatically, speeding the exodus from Iraq.
Many find a Baghdad they no longer recognize, a city altered by blast walls and sectarian rifts. Under the improved security, Iraqis are gingerly testing how far their new liberties allow them to go. But they are also facing many barriers, geographical and psychological, hardened by violence and mistrust.
Days after she returned from Syria, 23-year-old Melal al-Zubaidi and a friend went to the market on a pleasant night to eat ice cream. It was a short walk, yet unthinkable only a month ago for a woman in the capital. Still, her parents were nervous, and Zubaidi wore a head scarf and an ankle-length skirt to avoid angering Islamic extremists.
The Zubaidis, a Shiite Muslim family, have yet to pass another boundary. When they fled Iraq five months ago, a Sunni family took over their large house in Dora, a sprawling neighborhood in southern Baghdad. When the Zubaidis returned this month, they were too scared to ask the new occupants to leave. So they rented a small apartment in Mashtal, a mostly Shiite district.
"Security is better," said Melal al-Zubaidi, who has a degree in engineering. "But we still have fear inside ourselves."
Over the past two months, the level of nearly every type of violence -- car bombings, assassinations, suicide attacks -- has dropped from earlier this year. The downturn is a result of a confluence of factors: This year, 30,000 U.S. military reinforcements were funneled into Baghdad and other areas. Sunni tribes and insurgents turned against the al-Qaeda in Iraq insurgent group and partnered with U.S. forces to patrol neighborhoods and towns. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, seeking to improve his movement's image, ordered his Mahdi Army militia to freeze operations.
U.N. refugee officials estimate that 45,000 Iraqis returned from Syria last month, while Iraqi officials say 1,000 are arriving each day.
Freedoms come with constraints
The returnees find a capital that offers greater freedom of movement. Shops are open later in many neighborhoods, and curfews have been reduced.
But those freedoms still come with constraints. Weddings, accompanied by honking cars and lively bands, are reappearing on the streets, but they still end before darkness falls. Visits to relatives and friends across Baghdad are more possible but still hinge on which group or sect controls each neighborhood. Some stores are selling alcohol, but fundamentalists watch for those who breach their codes.
Luay Hashimi, 31, returned to his house in Dora with his wife and three young children last month after fleeing to Syria nine months ago. Since then, 11 other relatives who also had left for Syria -- Sunnis like him -- have come back, too.
Hashimi no longer sees bodies in the street when he opens his front door. Sunni extremists no longer man checkpoints to search his vehicle for alcohol or signs of collaboration with the government or the Americans. Roads are being paved, and municipal workers are sprucing up parks and traffic circles. His patch of Dora is now a fortress, surrounded by tall blast walls that separate entire blocks.
"It's totally secured," said Hashimi, who was an intelligence officer during the government of Saddam Hussein. But a few days ago, he drove across the main highway to another section of Dora. He felt a familiar fear. "You're lost there. You don't know who controls the area, Sunni or Shia, American soldiers or Iraqi security forces. It's still chaotic."
He never drives on side streets, afraid of the unknown. On a recent day, he wanted to visit a Shiite friend in Amil, a district controlled by the Mahdi Army, whom he had not seen in a year. But his friend advised him not to come. Hashimi felt relief. "I'm afraid to go to Shiite areas," he said.
Before Hashimi left Iraq, he used to pick up a friend every day from the mixed enclave of Bayaa and take him to the security firm where they both worked. But during his time in Syria, Shiite militias cleansed Bayaa of Sunnis. "It's impossible for me to go there now," he said.
So he spends most of his days in his once-mixed neighborhood, now a mostly Sunni area. A nearby tea shop is open until 10 p.m., but all other shops close by 7 p.m. Under Hussein, they used to be open past midnight. The walled-off streets have squeezed the pool of customers. Electricity, Hashimi said, is still scarce.
Kareem Sadi Haadi, a civil engineer, did not want to return to Baghdad. Nor did most of the Iraqis he knew in Syria. He and his family had escaped there five months after the U.S. invasion. But he ran out of money after two failed attempts to smuggle his family to Europe. Two weeks ago, they returned to Karrada, the mostly Shiite district where the family once lived.
Today, they live in a rented apartment with furniture given to them by relatives. Haadi said he is shocked by Baghdad's metamorphosis -- the checkpoints, road closings, traffic jams, razor wire on buildings, and the blast walls.
"Baghdad feels like a military base," said Haadi, 48, a Sunni. "Safety without these barriers is real safety."
Although he has been back in the capital for two weeks, he has not yet seen his sister who lives in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Alam, controlled by the Mahdi Army. She warned him that any stranger would be killed.
"Security is when I can get in my car at 10 p.m. and drive to see my sister," Haadi said.
Four days ago, gunmen kidnapped a man outside the house of Haadi's in-laws, also in Karrada.
"We don't go outside Karrada," said his wife, Anwar Mahdi, 43. "Now I am afraid to go to my parents."
As soon as they can save enough money, Haadi said, they hope to go back to Damascus. That could prove difficult. Syria now allows only Iraqis with special visas to enter.
Melal al-Zubaidi is optimistic. When she fled to Syria, she was terrified to drive through Anbar province, where Sunni militants were pulling Shiites from buses and killing them. This time, the bus drove throughout the night.
'People are tired of conflict'
"That comforted me," Zubaidi said. "I expect that security will improve day by day. People are tired of conflict."
Still, she has lines that she is not yet willing to cross. She has not visited her old university, fearing car bombs or kidnappings. In a nation where neighbors are often as close as relatives, Zubaidi is wary of trusting people in her community. "We're still afraid to meet new people," she said. "This district is still strange for me. . . . I don't want to take risks."
She wonders when, or if, her family will return to Dora. Their old neighbors, all Sunnis, had phoned her parents, urging them to return. But they also told them that they were scared to ask the Sunni family to vacate their house.
"People are saying Dora is better, but we're still afraid to go," Zubaidi said. "We don't know that family's background."
Her mother, who once ran a preschool in Dora, is worried over one of their former neighbors there. He encouraged them to leave their house because they were Shiites. And now he says he has a friend who wants to rent her preschool, now shuttered. He insists the area is too dangerous for the family to return.
"He is always terrifying us. He told us there's always a storm after the calm," said Um Melal, which means mother of Melal, who said she feared having her name published. "We are suspicious. We can't go back, although other Sunnis are telling us to come back, and saying, 'We'll protect you.' "
She said the improved security was not the only reason for returning to Iraq. She wanted to pick up her pension payments as well as winter clothes the family had stored away. Their Syrian residency permit has not expired.