BAGHDAD—When he's not working alongside his father in the nearby soot-spewing power plant, Abdullah Hassan sells soda and fruit of dubious freshness from a small stand in front of his house in the Dora neighborhood of the Iraqi capital. It's not much, and Hassan, 18, says he's miserably bored. "Idle hands," says his father Zayed, drawing slowly on a cigarette and leaving the proverb unfinished. So he found his son a shift at the power station.
Abdullah says he'd rather be in school, but when the family was pushed at gunpoint out of its old Shiite-dominated neighborhood, the headmaster of his former school refused to transfer his records to a school in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood. Zayad, a Sunni, recalls the headmaster saying, "We're not going to help terrorists," and threatening him if he complained. Without the records, Abdullah can't attend school. "Shiites are swine," Abdullah mutters in Arabic, though it's unclear if he's talking about his former principal or the thousands of pilgrims marching nearby.
Suffering has washed like the muddy Tigris through the capital for the past five years. Yet as the violence has ebbed during the past six months, a fragile truce has emerged in some formerly chaotic areas. The additional American troops, as Army commanders here are quick to note, are not the primary element behind what has been a reduction in killings. A cease-fire by the country's largest Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, and a new understanding between Sunnis and U.S. forces are chiefly responsible for plummeting numbers of roadside bombs and sectarian killings. The new troops, though, have helped stabilize some neighborhoods, particularly in Baghdad.
Reconciliation among Baghdad residents has not come from the central government, which is seen as weak and largely unrepresentative of Sunnis who boycotted the national elections. Instead, reconciliation, such as it is, has come primarily through local affairs arranged within neighborhoods and coordinated by American forces among tribal, religious, military, and family groups. This has occurred in the formerly mixed neighborhoods of Ghazaliyah, Dora, and Aamel, with prompting by American officers. "It is time to move on from the troubles of the past, yet the hardest work for you is still ahead," Lt. Col. James Crider of the 1-4 Cavalry, told a gathering of neighborhood leaders in Dora. "As peace returns, you'll see fewer American soldiers living among you."
A peace-through-stalemate has materialized with both Sunnis and Shiites well armed and confined by an endless line of concrete blast walls that ring their neighborhoods. Many areas have been "cleansed" of the minority sect, and some estimate that the city—once 40 percent Sunni—is now perhaps 20 percent Sunni. Last year, an estimated 800,000 Baghdadis were displaced, and they have been slow to return. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has been silent on the issue of returning displaced families to their former homes, unless the homes are vacant. And the U.S. military does not involve itself in housing disputes at all. The only organized repatriation comes at the behest of local reconciliation committees, returning residents to unoccupied homes. But the process can often make things worse—Shiite families returning to their homes in Dora have found soda bottles filled with homemade explosives and ball bearings placed on their front gates by their Sunni neighbors.
Over the past few years, the Shiite Mahdi Army in Aamel systematically drove out Sunni residents until only a small cluster of about 30 Sunni households remained. Shiites also fled the chaos. But early last month , several dozen Shiite and Sunni families began to move back into their abandoned homes in Aamel. As a lineman atop a ladder worked to connect houses back to the power grid—though there's still less than three hours of city power per day—the returning families greeted their old neighbors. "Mercifully, no one has stolen or broken into my house in six months," says one Shiite woman with two young children, whose husband was killed by a suicide bomber at a market last year.
While the soldiers can escort families back to their old houses, they can't always keep them safe afterward. "Reconciliation is like pouring concrete," says Capt. Sean Lyons, a company commander in the 1-28 Infantry, which oversaw some of the repatriation of Shiite and Sunni families in Aamel. "The U.S. Army can hold the forms up for a while, but we can't make it dry any faster."