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IRAQ: Expect the unexpected

March 30, 2008 |  8:59 am

If someone had told me a few months ago that Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods would be safer than Shiite areas, I would have thought this was madness. Sectarian fighting had driven most Sunnis, including my family and me, out of their homes.

One of my colleagues wrote about his own home being taken over a little over a year ago.

But things gradually improved over the fall and winter, so 18 months after I had moved my family to Syria and moved myself into the Los Angeles Times bureau, I decided my family could return. I was both excited and terrified. I needed just one reason to cancel the plan. But everyone supported it.

"It's safer now, and it has always been safer for women on the streets. They aren't targeted like men," a colleague told me. "Just make sure you don't make a routine out of going home every day."

Of course, home is not the place where my family once lived. That area remains volatile. So I decided to search for a house to rent in a nice middle-class neighborhood inhabited by Sunnis and Shiites, with a Sunni and a Shiite mosque peacefully coexisting on the same block.

My mother and father came back from Syria first. My wife and two young children followed about a month later.

Mom organized everything. She found a gorgeous eight-bedroom house with tons of space. I decided it was big enough for the entire family to live together: my parents, sister, her husband, and my wife and kids.

Mom had the toughest job. She had to go to our abandoned home and salvage what remained after looters had broken into it. As a male, it would have been too dangerous for me.

Moblog

She managed to retrieve my bedroom furniture and what was left of my children's toys. My 4-year-old son, Omar, kept begging me for his X-Box and the games that go along with it. I did not want to break his heart and tell him it had been stolen, so I got him a PlayStation console.

My wife's jaw dropped  when she arrived with the children and saw the new house. She was especially dazzled by the size of the master bedroom.

My colleague, Saif Hameed, joked that it was as big as a gym. "You could work out in your bedroom," he laughed.

I wanted to take my family out for some fun a couple of weeks after we had settled into our new routine. Syria is full of clean, green playgrounds and parks, where my kids used to spend much of their time. In Baghdad, I decided to take them to the Iraqi Hunting Club. I had not visited in three years.

The grounds once had nice gardens and a playground for the children, but now, it is awful. The grass has dried up. The slides, swings and jungle gyms are rusted and barely operable. My kids were very disappointed.

We left what I now think of as the Haunting Club and headed to the Baghdad Zoo. It was beautiful. Families were out having picnics, and the grounds were clean. My kids laughed at the monkeys playing around in their pen. Our last stop was to visit the lions. As we approached the enclosure, one lion let out a deafening roar, terrifying the children. My daughter, Maryam, who is nearly 2, began crying and warning her brother to stay away from the cage.

Monkey

Then, my wife wanted to go to her mother's house so she could see her sister. They had not been together since my wife's departure 18 months earlier. My in-laws live in a mainly Sunni area , but the situation had improved so much that I did not worry. I drove her and the children over there before heading to work.

Last week, everything changed. Suddenly, there were clashes between Shiite militiamen and government forces in the streets. Mortars started falling across Baghdad. A 24-hour curfew was imposed, and on Saturday, it was extended indefinitely.

I am back to living in the bureau because of this. My wife and kids are at her mother's house in the Sunni area. My parents remain at the new house in the mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood. We keep in touch by phone. When I spoke to my parents recently, I could hear gunfire in the background. I was worried about my wife and children, so I was surprised when I called her cell phone and she was out shopping at a neighborhood market.

Ramadi

"It's safe and the streets are very busy!" she told me.

I realized that this was because she was in a Sunni neighborhood, not engulfed in the battles between the Shiite militias and the Iraqi and American forces.

You can never predict what will happen in this country, but the last thing I expected was that a day would come when a Sunni area in Baghdad would be a safe haven.

--Mohammed Rasheed in Baghdad

Photos from top: Baghdad from the air (Tina Susman); A soldier walks through the looted, burned remains of an abandoned home (Tina Susman); An ape at the Baghdad Zoo (Saif Rasheed); A busy marketplace in the Sunni city of Ramadi (Tina Susman).

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