BEY'A, Iraq — Almost three years after Sheikh Gazi Hussein Abdullah and the residents of Bey’a fled their village about 30 miles north of Baghdad, they got a call from the Iraqi military saying they’d conducted a major operation in the area and that it was safe to return.

Abdullah said that although security had improved, “We came back here in tears because we found that all of our houses had been completely destroyed.”

Insurgents leveled 22 of the village’s 35 homes and the rest were severely damaged. Today, four months later, those trying to resettle Bey’a are crowded into tents and the handful of houses still standing until they can rebuild.

As fighting dies down in Iraq, displaced people are beginning to trickle back to their homes. Iraqi and U.S. officials say the return of refugees is critical to maintaining security gains, but to attract more returnees they must prove that they can maintain and continue to improve stability. They must also address a number of challenges, such as rebuilding destroyed homes and infrastructure to turn the trickle into a steady flow.

“The future of Iraq depends on sustaining a high level of security improvement and strengthening infrastructure and/or basic services,” Maha Sidky, reporting officer for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Iraq, wrote in an email. “These will be the reasons that could encourage massive return which will eventually lead to future stability.”

Despite recent security improvements, there are an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees outside the country and another 1.7 million displaced people within Iraq.

“A settled population in a counterinsurgency fight like the one we’re in has a vested interest in protecting that area, in protecting their welfare and the welfare of their kids and families and the functioning of the infrastructure,” said U.S. Army Maj. Steve Marr, operations officer for the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, stressing the importance of resettling returnees.

Many Iraqi and American military officials are newly optimistic that they can create an environment conducive to bringing refugees back. Already, many displaced people who’ve returned say that the Iraqi security forces are stronger and more reliable than when they fled, a fact that was key in their decision to return.

During the peak of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007, aside from problems with limited capabilities and corruption in the Iraqi security forces, the fledgling organization’s resources were spread too thin to effectively secure many outlying villages.

“Back at that time we couldn’t cover enough territory,” Iraqi police major Bassem Ibrahim Abid said. “We could only project our presence in limited areas.”

When insurgents threatened villages like Bey’a, even those residents who tried to take a stand were unable to defend themselves without the support of better-armed security forces.

“We fought against them and they killed most of our sons. They had rocket-propelled grenades and [belt-fed machine guns] and at the time we didn’t have the army to help us,” said Fisal Gazi, a resident of Bey’a.

Today, however, with the ranks of Iraqi security forces nearly doubled compared to what they were three years ago, Abid says his men are able to effectively police the entire province.

Still, Iraqi security forces will have to prove themselves to a number of skeptical Iraqis and demonstrate that they can maintain security, especially now that U.S. forces have pulled out of cities.

“It’s very important to bring all the displaced people back because without them there is a big space for AQI to come back,” Iraqi Army Col. Abd al-Razak Jasim said. “Bringing all the families back allows them to share in the security and work as our sources.”

U.S. Army Capt. John Turner, commander of Alpha Company, 2-8 Field Artillery battalion, is optimistic that more displaced people will begin returning throughout Diyala, especially now that the school year has ended. Many parents said they wanted their children to finish the school year before returning to their homes. However, a number of refugees said they would want central services, such as electricity and clean drinking water, restored before they’d consider returning.

“It’s a which comes first, the chicken or the egg,” Turner said. “They don’t want to come back unless the services are back, and the government doesn’t want to restore those services unless people come back.”

In Bey’a, where about 40 percent of the residents have returned, those still waiting to return also say they don’t want to come back unless a job awaits them. Others who lost their homes are waiting on the Iraqi government to provide them with compensation so that they’ll have enough money to restart their lives.

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