|"Riyadh al-Bahadli with a photograph of his brother Walid, who was killed in a Baghdad neighborhood to which he returned after fleeing during the war." (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)|
By Jack Healy and Yasir Ghazi
The New York Times, March 24, 2012
"Even after death squads began killing his neighbors, after corpses appeared in the streets around his home and his family fled in fear, Walid al-Bahadli still believed in his once affluent and diverse neighborhood of Al Adel. A Shiite Muslim, he had grown up there during the 1960s, when Sunnis and Shiites lived side by side in palm-shaded mansions. He vowed after he and his family moved away to safety that the family would return. But as the Bahadlis have discovered, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis now seeking to go back to areas they fled during the bad times, going home again is never as simple as it seems. Instead, they find themselves perched along the next front in Iraq's seemingly unending turmoil: the battle of return. Across the country, near-record numbers of displaced families are pouring back, but instead of kindling a much-needed reconciliation they are in some cases reviving the resentments and suspicions created by bloody purges that carved Iraq into archipelagos of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds after the American-led 2003 invasion. In places like Al Adel, some Shiite families view the Sunni families who stayed behind as complicit partners of the violent Sunni militants who overran many mixed neighborhoods. But many Sunni families say they now feel like they are being hounded by returning Shiites who, for the first time in centuries, have the force of the government and army at their backs. In 2011, the number of returnees to Iraq soared by 120 percent from a year earlier, to 260,690, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They were drawn back by improving security and larger government payments to Iraqis registering as returnees. It was the most since 2004, when the fall of Saddam Hussein opened the gates for thousands who had fled his brutality, forced relocations and a decade of crushing sanctions. As they continue to come home, they will test whether Iraq can move beyond a sectarian prism that distorts its politics and undercuts its security.
It is a struggle that will play out in future years not just in politics and government, but in scarred, segregated neighborhoods like Al Adel. And if the story of the Bahadli family and their neighborhood is any guide, it will be a return layered with friendship and forgiveness, but also distrust. And one stained with blood. In Arabic, Al Adel means justice. After the 2003 invasion, it became a base camp for Sunni insurgents in western Baghdad. They carried out torture in seized houses and battled Shiite militias who had control of a nearby neighborhood. Nearly every Shiite family moved away, and residents estimated that 300 people were killed in a neighborhood of about 1,500 to 2,000 families. Today, Al Adel blooms with loud markers of the Shiites' return and ascent. Along the main streets fly black, green and red flags of Shiite mourning and martyrdom. The faces of Shiite clerics, living and dead, stare down from billboards. A new mosque for followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr has opened. For Shiite Muslims who have returned over the past few years, these are footholds of identity. But Sunnis say they get the message: it is religious Shiites who now hold sway from Al Adel to the office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. 'They see us as a threat,' said Mohammed al-Ani, 35, a Sunni government worker. 'They are putting us through the same things that the Shiites suffered. Now, as a Sunni, I am afraid when I am home. I keep thinking that they will come and arrest me.' They grumble about being harassed at the two checkpoints leading into the neighborhood, and they say that the soldiers who wave Shiite residents through demand identification of the Sunnis. Every few weeks, Sunni residents say, their houses are raided by soldiers loyal to Mr. Maliki. [...]"