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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Thousands return to safer Iraqi capital

3,000 Iraqis return to Baghdad

Street vendors sell fresh fish at an open air market in east Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007. More than four months after U.S. forces completed a 30,000-strong force buildup, the death toll for both Iraqis and Americans has fallen dramatically for two months running and as if sensing a possible shift in the capital, Iraqis in mainly Shiite eastern Baghdad have returned to the streets in numbers not seen in months. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

BAGHDAD - In a dramatic turnaround, more than 3,000 Iraqi families driven out of their Baghdad neighborhoods have returned to their homes in the past three months as sectarian violence has dropped, the government said Saturday.

Saad al-Azawi, his wife and four children are among them. They fled to Syria six months ago, leaving behind what had become one of the capital's more dangerous districts — west Baghdad's largely Sunni Khadra region.

The family had been living inside a vicious and bloody turf battle between al-Qaida in Iraq and Mahdi Army militiamen. But Azawi said things began changing, becoming more peaceful, in August when radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army fighters to stand down nationwide.

About the same time, the Khadra neighborhood Awakening Council rose up against brutal al-Qaida control — the imposition of its austere interpretation of Islam, along with the murder and torture of those who would not comply.

30,000 additional U.S. forces arrived for the crackdown in Baghdad and central Iraq, the American commander, Gen. David Petraeus, began stationing many of them in neighborhood outposts. The mission was not only to take back control but to foster neighborhood groups like the one in Khadra to shake off al-Qaida's grip.

The 40-year-old al-Azawi, who has gone back to work managing a car service, said relatives and friends persuaded him to bring his family home.

"Six months ago, I wouldn't dare be outside, not even to stand near the garden gate by the street. Killings had become routine. I stopped going to work, I was so afraid," he said, chatting with friends on a street in the neighborhood.

When he and his family joined the flood of Iraqi refugees to Syria the streets were empty by early afternoon, when all shops were tightly shuttered. Now the stores stay open until 10 p.m. and the U.S. military working with the neighborhood council is handing out $2,000 grants to shop owners who had closed their business. The money goes to those who agree to reopen or first-time businessmen.

Al-Azawi said he's trying to get one of the grants to open a poultry and egg shop that his brother would run.

"In Khadra, about 15 families have returned from Syria. I've called friends and family still there and told them it's safe to come home," he said.