BAGHDAD—It’s 10 p.m., and much of Baghdad’s neighborhood of Saidiyah has fallen into darkness. The city power is off, as it tends to be most of the time, and there are no street lights. Some houses are lit up, powered by neighborhood generators; others are either empty, their owners in self-imposed exile, or dark because it is expensive to keep the lights on. Baghdadis once were famous for long dinners that lasted until midnight, but now it is cheaper to go to bed early.

Moving stealthily along crepuscular streets, American soldiers use night-vision goggles to pick out the houses they are going to search tonight. Before they left the base, US Army Lieutenant Rusty Mason instructed his soldiers how to decide whether to search a house:

“If there’s an abandoned building, no footprints, it’s not an ideal candidate for checking out,” he said. “But if it’s an abandoned building and there’s some footprints, like someone’s been going in and out of it, then go and check it out.”

The soldiers knock on metal gates, and the rattle and the whirr of generators are the only sounds.

In one house, the soldiers have roused a family. In another, a teenage girl fearfully hides behind her mother.

“Are you shy?” one soldier asks, in English, trying to alleviate the discomfort. The soldiers, in their bulky body armor and with their M4 rifles, crowd the tiled yard illuminated by the soft light seeping through the windows of the house.

“She is afraid,” says the girl’s mother, a school principal.

“Why?” the soldier asks.

Another soldier responds, sarcastically: “Why should I be afraid of everybody with their weapons coming to my house?”

At another house, two brothers in their mid-20s are working on a car. They send their younger brother to fetch some bread for the Americans. Iraqis are famous for their hospitality.

In a shadowy yard a block away, Dr. A.H. Kadhim, professor of philosophy at Baghdad University, and his son, Anis, who is studying to become a dentist, patiently answer the Americans’ questions about their life in Saidiyah. It is safer now, they say, in slow but eloquent English. No fighting in the streets. In the kitchen, the remnants of their dinner—home-made pizza—are on the stove, and on the kitchen table sits a sewing machine with a bunched-up piece of pale green silky cloth.

At one point, the father mentions that the Americans’ Bradley fighting vehicle had ripped the wire the family used to get power from a community generator. Now the family has to use their own generator instead, which pumps noxious diesel fumes into the yard. The conversation has to be shouted, because the family’s generator is loud.

“I’m sorry,” says Second Lieutenant Henry Mitchell. I wonder out loud if the Iraqis should be compensated—Americans often pay Iraqis for the property damage they cause.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Anis waves his hands. Then, to my amazement, he asks the big American soldiers with body armor and guns: “Is there anything we can do for you?”

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Anna Badkhen has covered wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Chechnya and Kashmir. She has reported extensively from Iraq since 2003. Her reporting has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The National, FRONTLINE/World, Truthdig, and Salon. Her book, "A War Reporter's Pantry," will be published in January 2011 by Free Press/Simon&Schuster. She lives in Massachusetts.