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U.S. Army to Baghdadis: Do you really live here?

As Iraqis return to Baghdad neighborhoods once racked by sectarian violence, the US military wants to ensure that squatters aren't laying claim to their houses.

By Anna BadkhenContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2008

Suad al-Safar (l.), and her daughter say they are renting their home, but could not say where the landlord is residing.

Anna Badkhen

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In a house with a yellow swing and one red rose climbing along its dusty cement fence, a 14-year-old boy named Mohammed explains to American and Iraqi troops that his family is renting the house. The real owner, he says, is "traveling."

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There is no way to know whether Mohammed is telling the truth or whether he and his family are squatters taking advantage of the exodus of local residents who fled sectarian violence, says Lt. Ryan Harmon, leader of the joint US-Iraqi patrol.

Mohammed had no lease to show, which is not uncommon as rental agreements are often verbal, and none of his family members could provide contact information for their landlord.

But their status – and that of many Baghdadis who moved about the city over the past two years to flee violence and often settled in any empty house – could have tremendous impact on the processes of resettlement and reconciliation as security returns here and Iraqis start going home again.

In Saidiyah, a religiously mixed neighborhood in southwestern Baghdad rebuilding after sectarian bloodshed peaked here last year, as many as 400 families have retuned since the Americans arrived and implemented radical new safety measures.

Now, US soldiers are making it their priority to ensure the area's 60,000 people are living in their rightful homes and that when residents return, their transition back to Saidiyah goes as smoothly as possible.

"It's the biggest thing that we're dealing with now," says Capt. Andrew Betson, the commander of Alpha Company of the 4-64 armor battalion, Fourth Brigade, Third Infantry Division, whose soldiers operate in Saidiyah.

When Alpha Company arrived last December, the neighborhood was "a ghost town," Lieutenant Harmon says. The Americans encircled the area with a 12-foot wall and swept through, knocking down gates as they searched dusty compounds for members of Shiite and Sunni militias. Today, they knock politely on doors to inquire about the status of the residents inside.

According to the 4-64 battalion commander, Lt. Col. Johnnie Johnson, between three and five families come back daily.

But the pattern in which they are returning is often based on their religious affiliation, and Saidiyah's streets where Shiites and Sunnis were once neighbors are now either exclusively Sunni, in the south, or entirely Shiite, in the north, many residents here say.

Every day in Saidiyah, American and Iraqi troops set out from their austere combat outpost to go from house to house, asking residents for their deeds and assessing the legitimacy of real estate agencies.

But even if families are squatting in someone's abandoned house, the American policy is not to move any families out, says Captain Betson. And if the rightful owners return, "they basically have to stay displaced, they have to stay wherever they are," he says. The troops pass on the information to the Saidiyah neighborhood council, which is trying to solve scores of property disputes.