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.

Anna Badkhen
Suad al-Safar (l.), and her daughter say they are renting their home, but could not say where the landlord is residing.
Anna Badkhen
Whose home is it? US Army Lt. Rusty Mason, center, asks Bassem al-Zubaidi, a chemical engineer, whether he is legally living in his Saidiyah home.

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."

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.

"I'll pass on moving out families with a 2-year-old daughter," says Harmon. "That's not our role. That would get ugly."

Betson strolls down Saidiyah's bustling commercial streets, striking up conversations with shop owners. He stops at storefronts riddled with bullets, shakes hands, accepts small gifts of bottled soda, inquires about the success of their businesses, and chats about life in the neighborhood.

When Betson comes across a real estate agency, he stops in his tracks. "Do you have official permission from the government to sell real estate?" he demands of the owner, a burly middle-aged man in a long gray dishdasha shirt. The man says he does.

"Do you have the deed on your shop?" Betson asks.

"My brother has the deed," the man replies.

Betson asks to see the man's brother, who said he kept the deed at home.

Betson thinks this is suspicious.

"Keep your deed here," he instructs the man. "So that next time when I come here, I can see the deed."

"Realty business in itself is a touchy subject," Betson explains later, at the company's base in Saidiyah. "Is it real realty, or are they trying to sell homes that are..." he trails off, shaking the palm of his hand back and forth in a gesture symbolizing uncertainty.

On the southern edge of Saidiyah, Iraqi and American troops knock politely on doors and wait for owners to let them in.

"We're done breaking stuff," explains Harmon, who often ordered his platoon to force their way into houses and rummage through wardrobes and closets when the company first arrived here and was looking for militants.

Now, the Iraqi forces quietly walk through homes, asking the residents if they have any weapons. With US soldiers listening closely, their Iraqi translator, who asks to be called by his nickname, Johnnie, to protect his identity, asks residents if they were legitimately occupying the homes.

Brothers Ahmed and Husam Shwel clearly do. They have a corner lot with a gate that Husam was giving a new coat of paint. They returned from self-imposed exile to a different part of Baghdad last month, know their neighbors by name, and have keys to three houses on their street, trusted to them by neighbors.

But it is less clear in the case of a man who identifies himself as Abu Samir, a retired soldier who says he bought his house a week ago. He says he had fled his home in the Baghdad neighborhood of Rahmaniyah after men in black ski masks threatened his family and ordered them to leave and now occupies a palatial two-story villa.

A block away, unemployed engineer Omar al-Aimi says, over the shrieks of his crying children, that he is renting his house for $80 a month from a man who lives in Tikrit.

Mr. Aimi's wife huddles with the children in the darkened living room, explaining that they were afraid of men with guns.

"We may never know if they are legal," Harmon says.

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