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Returning Iraqis find they're not welcome

BAGHDAD -- Haj Ali's family had been home for less than a month when a makeshift bomb blew off part of his garage. The message was clear: Go back to wherever you came from.

Two years ago, when Sunni Muslims began killing Shiites in Ali's west Baghdad neighborhood, he quickly gathered a few belongings and fled. Last month, his family returned home. They didn't stay long.

"We thought it was safe," Ali said. "Now I see that for us, home means death. There are still people who don't want us there." Only a small fraction of the roughly 5 million Iraqis who've fled their neighborhoods in fear since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have returned, although returns have picked up since the Iraqi government last month began urging people home.

Many Iraqi families have returned to their old homes in peace, but a disturbing trend already is emerging: They're being targeted and attacked, and in some cases killed, for returning to their homes. Some returnees have been threatened. Others have found explosives tied to their front doors. Some have had their homes blown up.

The trend, along with an uptick in sectarian and ethnic violence in northern Iraq and growing tensions among rival Shiite factions in the south, is a worrisome development for American political and military leaders who're increasingly eager to declare victory and begin withdrawing more U.S. troops from Iraq to send more forces to Afghanistan.

Sectarian cleansing has helped to reduce the violence in Iraq to a four-year low, but the small number of returnees who've been targeted could be a warning that the violence could return, too.

At least a few families coming home to Baghdad and Diyala province have been killed, an Oct. 1 study by the International Organization for Migration reported.

American commanders in several parts of the capital said the homes of some returnees have been targeted with explosives.

"It's not happening every day, but it is happening," said Army Capt. Dave Lombardo from Kennesaw, Ga., the commander of the 4th Infantry Division's Troop B, 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Hood, Texas, who oversees Baghdad's Khadraa neighborhood.

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