Refugees Returning to Iraq Find Homes Occupied

As Iraqi refugees begin to return to Baghdad and other cities, some are finding their homes occupied. The Iraqi government has not yet devised a plan to resolve the disputes. That means local community leaders and U.S. troops end up trying to find solutions themselves.

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Baghdad is quieter than it's been in nearly two years. And some Iraqis who fled their homes are now trying to return to the Iraqi capital. The Iraqi government has yet to devise a plan to accommodate all the people who are coming back, so American commanders and community leaders are trying to resolve problems by themselves.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay was recently embedded with U.S. troops in south Baghdad. Here's her report.

Unidentified Man: Hello.

JAMIE TARABAY: American troops from the 2nd Battalion 12th Infantry Regiment knock at the door of a house that at first glance seems unoccupied. The windows are shut but there are clothes hanging from a date palm in the garden. A young man, Ali Daffur(ph), follows the soldiers into the courtyard.

Mr. ALI DAFFUR: (Through translator) We've been back two weeks. We were in Syria. I've come back to clean the house. My family is staying with my uncle.

TARABAY: Daffur is Shiite. He and his family left their house in the south Baghdad district of Dora two years ago after he found a note stuck to the front gate. It was addressed to the Rejectionists, a word some Sunni extremists used to describe Shiites. The note said Daffur and his family had 24 hours to leave their home.

Mr. DUFFER: (Through translator) We came back because there was no work for us in Syria. We spent all our money. We sold our cars, everything.

TARABAY: Daffur's best friend, Samir Riyadh(ph) hovers in the background. Neighbors since they were toddlers, the two remained in touch when Daffur left for Syria. A month ago, he told his friend he could come back, that Dora was safe for Shiites now. But Daffur needed permission from the district's tribal elders.

Mr. DAFFUR: (Through translator) I went to the sheikh and he told me, you have to have people vouch for you. Some people came to our street to get information on me. They were worried I was involved with the Mahdi army.

TARABAY: After Daffur's neighbors assured the local Sunni sheikh that he didn't belong to the Mahdi army or any other Shiite militia, the family was allowed back in. This part of Dora is now controlled by the U.S. Army along with Iraqi security forces and a local volunteer force. Wearing the lemon-yellow shirt, which is part of the uniform for this local group, is Abbas Saleh(ph). He's Sunni, as are most of his fellow volunteers.

Mr. ABBAS SALEH (Sunni Volunteer): (Through translator) If we cannot handle the situation, we coordinate with the Americans and the Iraqi army, otherwise, we do everything ourselves.

TARABAY: Because the Iraqi government has yet to issue any kind of guidelines on the return of displaced people, the issue is now in the hands of the armed group from the ground and their religious or tribal leaders. U.S. troops often find themselves in the middle as mediators.

Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Michael, commander of the 2-12.

Lieutenant Colonel STEPHEN MICHAEL (Commander, 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment): There is the patience part of it. These guys are back. They want to move in. You know, you might not able to tell a family that has been holding there, you know, you got to leave tomorrow. So sometimes what they've done is put the incoming family in a home that's not theirs, and give these guys a chance to move and then move in. But we're pushing for the solution to be local as opposed to us mandating stuff. And if it's solved at their level, this can be something that's sustainable.

TARABAY: Michael relies on the local authorities to be fair when they screen people who want to return to their homes. American troops trying to hold on to fragile security gains in the city have little choice.

Lt. Col. MICHAEL: And what we got to do is help facilitate it because all part of that ties in with security, you know, if you got people that are - that's got a high level of discontent, that also impacts, you know, impacts security. So we're not physically involved in negotiations, but we're facilitating this.

TARABAY: Some of the local volunteer groups clearly have sectarian agendas. One Shiite man who recently returned to check on the house he left in the neighborhood of al-Alam was chased away by gunmen who want him never to return. American soldiers say there are no guarantees the local repatriation process is fair. But Lieutenant Colonel Michael says it'll have to do for now.

Lt. Col. MICHAEL: The government is not going to happen anytime soon, so it's going to have to be the local solution, which is the neighborhood council and the tribal leaders.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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