- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

BAGHDAD - The surge has been good for the Murads.

A little more than a year after they were driven out of their Baghdad neighborhood by militants who kidnapped their son, the parents and children are back in their home. The Shi’ite family is living among longtime Sunni neighbors, protected by U.S. forces and armed with safety guarantees from the Sunni tribal sheiks who had joined forces to drive al Qaeda in Iraq from the area.

“I am happy to be back to my house and enjoying the company of my Sunni neighbors and friends,” said Ali Jassim Murad, 43, a Culture Ministry employee and head of the household.

But 15 months after the U.S. military poured reinforcements into Iraq’s worst battlefields to regain control, families like the Murads are a tiny minority. Of the 5.1 million Iraqis uprooted from their homes, about 78,180 - less than 1 percent - had returned by March 31, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental humanitarian group based in Switzerland.

Up to half of the displaced are in neighboring countries, chiefly Jordan and Syria. But these countries, feeling overwhelmed, have tightened visa restrictions. Meanwhile, Iraqis who are refugees in their own country are feeling the pinch of high rents, lost jobs and the disruption of their children’s education.

Yet the United Nations and aid agencies warn that despite the drop in violence, a rapid mass of Iraqis demanding return to their homes may only reignite sectarian tensions.

So the exodus from Iraq could remain the biggest crisis of its kind in the world today, and could stay that way indefinitely.

Bilal al-Mashhadani, a 45-year-old Sunni teacher, is still afraid to return to the Baghdad home that he fled after five black-clad Shi’ite gunmen, whom he recognized as members of the Mahdi Army militia, came to his house and told him that he was no longer welcome in the neighborhood.

The next day he found an envelope on his doorstep. It contained a bullet and a letter saying, “Leave or die.”

Mr. al-Mashhadani, his wife and three daughters packed what they could, locked the door and on Dec. 20, 2006, fled to the Amariyah district of Baghdad.

There, Sunnis were welcomed and it was Shi’ites being made to feel unwelcome, but the influx of Sunnis caused rents to increase. Mr. al-Mashhadani is paying $210 a month, 83 percent of his monthly salary as an Arabic teacher.

Meanwhile, the militiamen have moved a Shi’ite family into his original home in the Hurriyah district of Baghdad. He said he asked them through intermediaries for rent, but they refused to pay.

Hurriyah, like many formerly mixed neighborhoods taken over by Shi’ite militias, is relatively peaceful now, but the call to prayers no longer resounds from Sunni mosques.

A cease-fire called by the Mahdi Army’s commander, the radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has helped bring about the calm, and Mr. al-Sadr’s offices have offered to ensure the safe return of Sunni families, but few have accepted, and his forces maintain control of the vacated Sunni houses and stores.

According to the IOM, the exodus spiked by 1.5 million after the February 2006 bombing of the golden domed Shi’ite mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad, which set off a vicious cycle of vengeance attacks by Sunnis and Shi’ites.

Many moved in with relatives or into abandoned buildings and camps, often without access to clean water, electricity or health care.

The IOM works closely with the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration and monitors refugee numbers in Iraq and abroad as well as giving them help through a network of partners on the ground.

It counts 2.7 million internally displaced people and 2.2 million to 2.5 million who fled to other countries, mostly Jordan and Syria, more than 60 percent of them from the Baghdad area.

Although the surge, the Sunni revolt and Mr. al-Sadr’s cease-fire have brought a measure of calm, the forced separation of Sunnis and Shi’ites also plays its part.

Nowhere are the divisions more evident than on the streets of Baghdad, a maze of concrete walls and checkpoints in which formerly mixed neighborhoods have been emptied of members of the rival Islamic sect.

“There are now areas of Baghdad and other cities that have become ethnically homogenized,” says Roberta Cohen, a human rights specialist with the Brookings Institution.

Aqil al-Saad, a Shi’ite agricultural engineer, used to make a comfortable living caring for the date palm groves in Dora, a mainly Sunni area of Baghdad. Then one of his sons was kidnapped in March 2006.

Mr. al-Saad got his son back for a $40,000 ransom, but death threats forced the family to flee the home they owned.

He and his family moved to the predominantly Shi’ite area of Jadriyah in southeastern Baghdad, where Mr. al-Saad rents a house for $400 per month. He ekes out a living from doing landscaping for wealthy neighbors and from money sent by two brothers living abroad.

“We lived like kings in Dora,” he said in an interview. “We had our own house, and we used to buy whatever we want. Now, we can hardly afford our basic needs.”

Mr. Murad, the Culture Ministry employee, got his kidnapped son back and was able to exchange houses with a Sunni friend, but the new place was much smaller and he repeatedly had to prove to militia interrogators that he was Shi’ite.

In February, the Murads and the Sunni family moved back to their own homes.

Most of those who have returned said their belongings were lost, stolen or heavily damaged.

“The situation for those returning is grim and isn’t necessarily an improvement from when they were displaced,” said Rafiq Tschannen, the IOM’s chief of mission for Iraq.

In Khidr, a Shi’ite hamlet of date palms 45 miles south of Baghdad, all that remains of the downtown area are the mosque walls and huge piles of rubble. Months of shelling and bombings blamed on al Qaeda in Iraq forced all 800 villagers to flee in October 2006.

“Life was completely destroyed. We didn’t even see birds in the trees,” said Jaafar Hussein, a village sheik.

His family also was among the first of about 100 to return in January after U.S. soldiers with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, cleared out the Sunni insurgents and established a patrol base.

Khidr is a Shi’ite enclave surrounded by mainly Sunni villages in a rural area long known as the “Triangle of Death.”

“What al Qaeda did and in some places the Shia extremists have done is they just decimated the area, they destroyed everything, they scared everyone away,” said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands American forces south of Baghdad.

The devastated center stands as a monument to the destruction. But the leafy surrounding area is slowly being restored as villagers, mostly potato and tomato farmers, salvage bricks from the rubble to rebuild their houses and their lives.

Maliki Alwan, 51, and his family of 12 fled to the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala nearly two years ago and shared a house with a friend. They returned after hearing about the improved security but found their house gutted by mortar shells.

The 51-year-old canal gatekeeper got his old job back but now lives with his family crammed into a one-room hut with no running water. He said people often have to drink water straight from the canal.

Nonsectarianism runs in the Alwan family. Alwan is a Shi’ite married to a Sunni. His son is engaged to a Sunni. He said the violence that turned their village into a base for al Qaeda had nothing to do with religion.

“This was hatred more than religion,” he said.

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