Refugees return to transformed Saab al Boor, Iraq

Flags flap around a group of men at an Ashura tent in Saab al Boor on Sunday. The tents blast music and provide chairs for revelers who want to celebrate the 10-day Shiite holy period.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 10, 2009

SAAB AL BOOR, Iraq — They turn up each day at the windswept edge of the city, ready to be led home.

Once refugees, the residents of Saab al Boor are streaming back to northwest Baghdad to recover the life they left behind during the worst of Iraq’s insurgency.

The U.S. Army says about 2,100 families, which often include 10 to 15 members, have returned to the city in just the past four months as violence subsided and utilities ramped up. In all, 40,000 refugees returned over the past year.

Many have found a relative peace and increased police, water and electricity services.

Saab al Boor is seen as a top success for the U.S.-led coalition, attracting attention from visiting generals and earning a spot in the counterinsurgency training for officers entering the country.

"I feel that life has totally changed," said Jassim Hobi, a member of a local support council for returning refugees. "Now, this is one of the safest areas in Baghdad."

The city was built as a mixed Shiite retirement area within a belt of Sunni communities. But after the invasion, it became the site of bitter sectarian violence that dropped the population from 60,000 to 4,000.

"My son was killed and my other son injured" in 2006, said Khamas Abdel Hussein, whose family fled daily bombardments of mortars and rockets over two years ago.

Khamas and his nine family members moved in with relatives in a nearby village while coalition forces fought insurgents through early 2007 in the streets of Saab al Boor.

The family moved back to the city in December as word spread of security improvements. Despite finding all their furniture stolen, the move back into their home was easy, said Khamas, who now works as a driver in town.

All refugees are handled by Iraqi authorities. They check in at an Iraqi army post, are transferred to the local government center where they are added to a census, and are escorted back to homes by the Iraqi police.

The U.S. Army takes biometrics and checks names against lists of wanted insurgents.

"All these biographies show where they are living and what they are doing. Maybe it can help them in the future," said Lt. Col. Riyad Abdel Wadod, who is the head of the city police. "This census will cover all the people of Saab al Boor."

The census is a way to keep watch for insurgents and criminals and retain order in the city, he said.

At the height of fighting in 2006, 10 to 15 residents were killed each day, Riyad said.

The police now have more than 200 men and have greatly improved security and reduced the number of killings, he said.

The U.S. Army feared the return of tens of thousands of refugees, many of them Shiites, could spark a new bout of lawlessness but so far those fears have not come to pass.

Only one city group celebrated the Shiite holy period of Ashura in 2008. During the past week, 17 groups moved into the streets for the holiday, Riyad said.

"This is evidence that the majority of the families are starting to feel safe," Riyad said. "Now in Saab al Boor, law is above all."

As order returns and residents move back into homes, utilities are being upgraded across the city, said Capt. Daniel Digati, of the 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.

"I’ve heard a lot of people saying essential services are better now than before the war," he said.

The U.S. has rebuilt power lines, cleared main roads and remodeled every school in the city, said Digati, 32, of Medford, Ore.

The new power grid provides Saab al Boor 10 times more electricity than before the war, which means about 10 to 14 hours of electricity for most homes, he said.

Drinking water is now available through street-side pumps.

"It took us five to six months but the entire population has access to potable water," Digati said.

Trash — a chronic problem in wartime Iraq — is also being dealt with through a new collection service and over 350 businesses have received microgrants to improve or expand, he said.

The turnaround in the city over the past 13 months has been "simply amazing," Digati said.

"Every officer who comes to Iraq learns Saab al Boor in the [counterinsurgency] academy," he said. "We isolated it, cleared it and held it with microgrants."

Tents beckon the faithful to celebrate the Shiite holy period of Ashura.