In Hurriyah, Sunni families trickle home

BAGHDAD, IRAQ: The soldiers moved through Hurriyah quietly, the only light the green glow of their night goggles. Outside the house they were looking for, a team of riflemen peeled off to provide security, weapons at the ready. While the platoon leader pounded on the door of the house, his interpreter called out “Jaysh Amriki, Jaysh Amriki” – the U.S. Army is here.

There would be no knocking down of doors tonight, and no detentions. Instead, when a man calling himself Ahmad came to the door, the platoon leader, from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, asked a series of questions through the interpreter: What is your name? Are you Sunni or Shia? How long ago did you return? Where did you come from? Have you received any threats since you came back?

The soldiers, both American and Iraqi, were not out on a raid, but on a mission to gather information about returning Sunni families – families which, after being driven from their homes by Shia militias in 2006 and 2007, are just beginning to return to this corner of northwestern Baghdad, a place U.S. soldiers once dubbed “the killing fields.”

The commander of American forces in Baghdad, Major General Jeffery Hammond, calls the brigade responsible for this area his “division main effort” – military parlance for his top priority, the area of most importance.

The brigade commander responsible for the area of the capital that includes Hurriyah, Colonel William Hickman, calls the resettlement effort his number-one priority, ahead even of preparations for the upcoming provincial elections. His unit, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, oversees a broad swath of Baghdad, stretching from the farmlands of Ghazaliya in the west to the banks of the Tigris in the east, from the former Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ameriya in the south to the Kadhimayn mosque in the north, one of the main shrines of Shia Islam.

At the heart of the brigade’s zone, which a little over a year ago was the focal point of Shia militias’ efforts at sectarian cleansing, is the district of Mansur, and in particular, the neighborhood of Hurriyah. This area is overseen by two battalions – the 101st Airborne’s 1-502 Infantry, and its partnered unit, the 6th Division’s 1st Battalion of the 22nd Iraqi Army Brigade. To these two battalions falls the task of ensuring that the resettlement of Sunni families into this area is conducted without violence or corruption.

It is a tall order, given the area’s recent history. When American troops first arrived in Baghdad more than five years ago, Hurriyah was a mixed neighborhood, with large populations of both Sunni and Shia Iraqis. Between the fall of 2005 and the spring of 2007, that changed dramatically. As sectarian violence erupted across central Iraq, the Shia militia known as the Mahdi Army advanced into western Baghdad, pushing Sunni families out of mixed neighborhoods by a variety of means, ranging from intimidation to kidnappings and executions.

In some areas of northwest Baghdad, Sunni families left before Mahdi militia fighters resorted to violence. Captain Elijah Ward of 1-502 Infantry’s headquarters cited the upscale Hibna neighborhood. “The Sunni exodus there was a little more civilized, if you will,” since affluent Sunni residents, many of them former Baath Party military officers, had the means to move elsewhere.

In Hurriyah, another affluent community, the Mahdi Army’s advance was so bloody that to the soldiers of the last American unit here, the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, the neighborhood became known as the “Hurriyah killing fields.” In all, according to Iraqi and American officers of the 1-22 and 1-502 battalions, somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 Sunni families fled Hurriyah, some for more secure areas of Baghdad like Adl and Jamia, and others for more distant destinations – Tarmiyah, Baqubah, and other Sunni towns outside the capital.

To consolidate control in Hurriyah after forcing Sunni residents to move elsewhere, the Mahdi Army brought impoverished Shia families into the area from poorer parts of greater Baghdad, according to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph McLamb, the 1-502 battalion commander. “You’re taking a family that was living in a mud house out in Saab al Bor,” McLamb said, “and you bring them into one of the more affluent communities in Hurriyah and you say, Jaysh al-Mahdi did this for you, and all we need in return is an extremely low weekly rent rate – and a little loyalty.”

But over the past few months, some Sunni families have begun to trickle back into Hurriyah, the soldiers of 1-502 say. The return has been prompted by the decline in violence across Baghdad and the dramatic defeat that Shia militias in northwest Baghdad suffered last spring at the hands of American and Iraqi troops. On the night patrol with 1-502’s Alpha Company, American and Iraqi troops were collecting information from half a dozen houses where Sunni families were thought to have recently moved back to reclaim their property.

The presence of Shia families brought into the area by the Mahdi Army after the Sunni displacement is a problem, but some Sunni families have found a profitable solution: permit the Shia family to stay, and charge them rent – usually more than the militia had demanded.

Another problem has been intimidation of returning Sunnis by militia loyalists. Abdullah, a recent returnee, showed the American platoon leader the threatening text messages that he had received on his cell phone from a militiaman named Abu Sayf. According to Ward, the officer from 1-502’s headquarters, there have also been incidents of concussion grenades tossed into Sunni houses. In other cases, Mahdi militia loyalists have set tires on fire in houses where they knew Sunni families planned to return. Outright violence against returnees has been scarce, though. There has been only one murder.

The number of returning Sunnis is not dramatic, at least not in comparison to how many families fled Hurriyah in 2006 and 2007. In all, just under 400 Sunni families have returned to Hurriyah, according to records kept by 1-502 Infantry.

Most of the families have moved only short distances from nearby Sunni neighborhoods like Adl, Jamia, and Ghazaliya. According to McLamb, roughly 60 percent of those families have moved in to stay, while 40 percent have simply come to reclaim their property or begin collecting rent from the Shia residents who arrived in their absence. To McLamb, the numbers are not ideal, but they are still an encouraging sign, signaling that broader resettlement could occur in Hurriyah: “It’s a good start, enough to say that this is feasible.”

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1 Comment

  • Rosario says:

    Wesley,
    This is an informative article as it really gives us the “temperature” of national reconciliation. However, from your comments it seems sunni Iraqis really don’t trust their own army yet. Has there been any goverment policy made at the national or local level to re-integrate bagdad or other parts of the country?

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