BAGHDAD — It was dark, just after 8 p.m. in Ghazaliyah, a sprawling neighborhood in west Baghdad, and a platoon of American soldiers was out knocking on doors.
Lucas Stump, a 26-year-old Army lieutenant from Michigan, pulled out a typed list of addresses. "I think it's here," he said, pointing to a gated house in one of Ghazaliyah's nicer, cleaner corners. The Iraqi Army officer accompanying the Americans nodded in agreement.
When Stump knocked, a porch light flickered on and a man cracked the gate just enough to see who was there. Stump's translator greeted him and asked if he'd recently moved back home.
"Yeah," the translator reported. "They came home a couple days ago."
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"Cool," Stump said. "Ask him if we can come in for a little while."
This is how Lt. Stump's platoon from the 1st Squadron of the 75th Cavalry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Ky., has been spending many of its evenings lately.
Instead of breaking down doors and rooting out insurgents, Stump's platoon is knocking on doors, sitting down for living room chats and sipping sweet tea.
Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sunnis and Shiites lived side-by-side in Ghazaliyah. By mid-2006, Shiite militias controlled the north and Sunni insurgents and al Qaida in Iraq controlled the south. Sectarian violence was rampant, and residents of both sects were among the more than 5 million Iraqis who fled.
Now, as the violence subsides, the Iraqi government is urging them to return, and they're coming back, in very small numbers. In Ghazaliyah, a neighborhood of about 60,000, roughly 15 families return each day, but some have been attacked.
"As more people start coming back, we need them to trust us," said Capt. Thomas Melton, who oversees most of Ghazaliyah. "We need them to know we're on their side. We need to know who's being targeted, and we need their help to figure out who should be taken off the streets."
Melton's men have become a welcome wagon of sorts. On a recent night, Stump's platoon set out around 7 p.m. armed with business cards to pass out to resettlers and Beanie Babies to pass out to their children.
At the fifth house they visited, the man who cracked the gate said that his family had just moved back, and the soldiers were invited in.
The man's wife scrambled to cover her hair, the children were called to the living room and everyone sat.
"How long have you been gone?" Stump asked. Two years, said the man, a Shiite.
He said that his family had fled to Khadraa, a nearby neighborhood that's seen less violence. They lived in a house owned by a family that had left Iraq. About a week ago, the owners returned and wanted their house back.
Stump asked if the family had received the government resettlement grant they were supposed to get. They hadn't.
"I've been hearing that from everybody," Stump said. "No good."
He asked if the family had been threatened. They said they hadn't.
"Do you feel safe?" he asked.
"The area is good right now," the man answered as his wife served the soldiers small cups of sweet tea. She chimed in and agreed. Her only complaint was the trash in the streets.
After 20 minutes, Stump said it was time to go. "It's good to have you back in the neighborhood," he said. "We live just up the road. Call if you need anything." He handed the man a business card.
As the platoon drove back to its base, the soldiers agreed that this was a good night. Then news came over the radio that a nearby house had been blown up. No one was hurt, but a family who'd just moved back to Ghazaliyah had nowhere to sleep.
(Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.)
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