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Entire neighborhoods have been redrawn in Baghdad, dividing along sectarian lines. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes and moved into houses that have others have abandoned. Now these squatters are vulnerable again. The Iraqi general leading the security crackdown in Baghdad has said those illegally occupying houses must leave within 15 days or provide proof that they are renting the property.
But as NPR's Anne Garrels reports, reversing the tide of sectarian cleansing that has left the capital balkanized, will not be easy.
ANNE GARRELS: When Iraqi troops recently ordered Sunnis to leave houses they were illegally occupying in Ghazaliyah, frantic residents appealed to the local American commander for help.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: They said they had nowhere else to go; that they'd been driven from Shiite neighborhoods and had moved to houses abandoned by similarly terrorized Shiites.
The Iraqi army's demands caught Captain Eric Peterson by surprise.
Captain ERIC PETERSON (U.S. Army): I will talk to the Iraqi army tonight, but I…
GARRELS: (Unintelligible) agreed with the local forces that it will not kick people out. Besides, Peterson says, they have more pressing security problems right now. Instead, where possible, he's trying to legalize the living arrangements, helping people swap homes or arrange for leases. Peterson says this will take a long time. To entice people to return to their homes, the Iraqi government has promised about $200 for any family that moves back.
Colonel Jeff Peterson, the U.S. commander in the volatile south Dora neighborhood, says the sectarian divide is hard to overcome quickly.
Colonel JEFF PETERSON (U.S. Army): Obviously, we hope that mixed neighborhoods would be successful, be peaceful, but an interim step may be that we have some segregated neighborhoods so that everything can just calm down.
GARRELS: When Abdul Ameer heard about the government's new policy on squatters, he panicked. Abdul Ameer is a Shiite and he fled his neighborhood after many other Shiites were killed. He was reached by phone.
Mr. ABDUL AMEER (Displaced resident, Baghdad): (Through translator) I had to leave Al Khadra in Beria(ph). Moqtada al-Sadr's office here gave me the house of a Sunni family which had moved out.
GARRELS: The local office of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr knew where the abandoned houses were, because more often than not, it was Sadr's militiamen who had forced the Sunnis out. Abdul Ameer doesn't like the process. He does not agree with sectarian cleansing. But, he says, he had no choice - it was the only way to keep his family safe.
Mr. AMEER: (Through translator) The government can say whatever it wants, but if it tells me to leave, I will not. Where can I go?
GARRELS: Abdul Ameer says Shiites who have tried to go back to their homes have been killed.
Mr. AMEER: (Through translator) I know people who went back. They are dead. So all these promises are a lie. Even the guy who is now living illegally in my house, where can he go now that is safe? He, too, was forced to move and live in someone else's house.
GARRELS: Abdul Ameer sympathizes with the Sunni family who is now living in his old house, but not everyone feels that way. Scarred by having to flee their cherished homes, many Iraqis refuse to give squatters the legal right to live in their houses. And for some squatters, it's hard to find the owners.
The family who helped kick out 31-year-old Haidar Jassim is now asking for the legal right to live in his house. Fighting back tears, Haidar says no way.
Mr. HAIDAR JASSIM (Displaced Resident, Baghdad): Well, I refused that. We lived together for about 30, 35 years. They occupy my house. They throw out my sister and her stuffs out, and have the house.
GARRELS: If he doesn't give them a lease, he fears the neighbors will harm another sister who stayed in the neighborhood.
Mohamed Ali(ph), another Shiite who had to leave the family house behind, says the government's security plan is not well thought out.
Mr. Mohamed Ali (Displaced Resident, Baghdad): I think the plan is missing many important articles.
GARRELS: Fearing eviction, squatters are now fueling a flourishing market in fake rental agreements. In the ongoing chaos, Mohamed says there is no real way to check, and he says there is still too much room for extortion and threats to resolve the housing situation.
Mr. ALI: There is a crisis of trust, you know. We don't trust others, and so this is the crisis that we have now - the trust crisis.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.