On November 13 the Iraqi Army, supported by the police, moved into the Hurriyah district of western Baghdad to evict squatters and destroy their makeshift homes. Thousands of people were protesting the act. There were up to 675 families, approximately 4,000 people, most of whom were Shiites squatting in the area. The security forces were acting under Order 101 issued by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on September 1, 2008. The order said that all squatters had to vacate their premises or face legal ramifications. Those that leave voluntarily are eligible for 300,000 dinars ($250) for six months to help them find a new place to live. This is the latest initiative in the government’s refugee policy that it announced this summer to get Iraqis to return to their homes.
Hurriya was a bloody battleground between Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and Sunnis during the sectarian war. By November 2007, the Shiite militia had control of the neighborhood, and had forced out between 3,000-10,000 Sunni families in the process. The Mahdi Army then fractured as different groups began fighting over the spoils of their victory. Those were renting out houses to Shiites that the Mahdi Army had brought in to solidify their hold over the area, running petrol stations, and other protection rackets.
By the summer of 2008 things had changed in the neighborhood. The Mahdi Army had lost much of its power due to the government’s crackdowns against them. By June the first Sunnis began trickling back to the area. In an attempt to regain their lost standing, the Mahdi Army set off a car bomb in mid-June that killed up to 50 people and wounded another 80. It was hoped that the attack would be blamed on Sunni insurgents, thus rekindling sectarianism and make the Shiites turn to the Sadrists for protection. It was also meant to intimidate the Sunnis that had begun to return. Those plans were foiled when a Mahdi Army commander was exposed as the mastermind behind the bombing.
By the fall and winter more displaced Sunnis were coming back. Up to 107 families had returned by September, and the government was providing them with assistance. Maliki also issued Order 101 that month and 70 squatting families were evicted from Hurriya as a result. The U.S. Army also began chipping in, and believed that up to 400 families had come back by November. The Americans estimated that 60% were planning on staying, while 40% just came back to collect property or to try to work out a rent plant with the Shiites in their homes. Many were weary of the security forces however, especially the police that were Shiite. There were also threats against them. A grenade was thrown into one of their houses, tires were set on fire in areas where Sunnis were coming back, and one returnee was murdered.
Hurriya is a small microcosm of what is happening in many areas of the capital where refugees are returning. Many are coming back to find their homes occupied by another sect. Not only that, but militants that forced them out are still there as well on some occasions. Attacks on returnees appear very small in number so far, but the fear and intimidation is much more of an issue. In Baghdad, returnees are supposed to register with the authorities so that they can be protected. Hurriya is also one of the first where the security forces are acting on Order 101. Where the evicted squatters will go is unknown. This confusing and tense situation is why many groups like the United Nations, Refugee International, and Iraqi non-government organizations have all said that the government should not be encouraging families to come back yet. Yet the process has begun, partly because of improved security, and partly because many can’t afford to stay where they now reside. Baghdad’s response will be a major determinant of how this situation will ultimately work out.
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