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Iraq's new gated communities: safer, mixed, walled-in

Residents are moving back to Saidiyah, a neighborhood once racked by sectarian violence that is now guarded by a 12-foot-high wall.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 2008

Transformer: Workers installed a transformer in Saidiyah last week. For more than a year, part of the area has not been connected to Baghdad's power grid.

Howard Lafranchi

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Baghdad

There is big excitement on al-Marifah Street. City workers are installing a new transformer to bring power to a part of the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Saidiyah that hasn't been on the city's electrical grid for more than a year.

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"A year ago, dead bodies lay on this street for days; no one dared to pick them up. But now we are getting lights and shops have opened back up," says Mahdi Jabbar Falah, a 40-year resident who has just moved himself and his family of nine back to their house. They fled last year after Mr. Jabbar received a bullet in an envelope, a sure sign he was on someone's hit list.

"Last year, this was a ghost town," he says, "but now I feel we are alive again."

Saidiyah is one of the many neighborhoods and towns in and around Baghdad that residents abandoned during the worst of the sectarian violence. Officials there estimate that more than half the area's 60,000 people moved out. Now, many are moving back and the trucks overflowing with household goods coming through al-Marifah Street attest to that.

But there has been a price to pay: Saidiyah is now surrounded by a 12-foot-tall concrete wall, a barrier that the US military completed four months ago. Long lines of cars await inspection by the Iraqi Army at the town's one public entrance, while pedestrians submit to a pat-down.

The US Army maintains two camps here and the Iraqi Army is a substantial presence. Local young people, part of the "Awakening" or "Sons of Iraq" movement the US military developed and financed to draw locals into the battle with Al Qaeda in Iraq extremists, also patrol the streets.

Many families have also returned to find themselves in the middle of property disputes. In some cases, after the families left Saidiyah, they rented out their house and now some tenants refuse to leave. In other houses, squatters have simply made themselves at home.

"There are problems. We have to sort out all these cases of whose house is really whose and who has taken advantage of the situation to move in," says Ali al-Amari, director of the Saidiyah Support Council, a committee formed to foster reconciliation and settle property disputes.

Displaying a hand-printed log of the more than 370 cases of squatting and other claims registered since February, Mr. Amari says, "The important thing is we have our security back. It's amazing," he adds, "You could say it's safer than Michigan."

Baghdad's new walled communities

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