Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Our House, In the Middle of Whose Street?
When the Iraqi government last month invited home the 1.4 million refugees who had fled this war-ravaged country for Syria -- and said it would send buses to pick them up -- the United Nations and the U.S. military reacted with horror. [...]
"It's a problem that everybody can grasp," said a senior U.S. diplomat here. "You move back to the house that you left and find that somebody else has moved into the house, maybe because they've been displaced from someplace else. And it's even more difficult than that, because in many cases the local militias . . . have seized control and threw out anybody in that neighborhood they didn't like."
The vast population upheaval resulting from Iraq's sectarian conflict has left the country with yet another looming crisis. At least one of every six Iraqis -- about 4.5 million people -- has left home, some for other parts of Iraq, others for neighboring nations. [...]
The question of how to deal with them is posing a complex new challenge for Iraq's government, as well as for U.S. military commanders, diplomats and international aid workers here. U.S. and U.N. officials have been pushing Iraqi leaders to develop programs and policies aimed at addressing the vexing problems associated with returning refugees.
"It's very easy to say, 'Come home,' " said Guy Siri, the U.N. deputy humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. "But come home where, and how?[...]
The thorny issues were evident when the first and so far only group of families was bused back from Syria by the Iraqi government on Nov. 28. According to the United Nations, only about a third of the 30 families returned to their original homes. Most of the rest, finding a new sectarian makeup in their neighborhood or their property pillaged, moved in with already overburdened relatives in other parts of the Baghdad area.
For many Iraqis, the homes they left no longer exist. Houses have been looted, destroyed or occupied. Most Baghdad neighborhoods, where Shiites and Sunnis once lived side by side, have been transformed into religiously homogeneous bastions where members of the other sect dare not tread.
As the article suggests, the loss of homes has taken on a decidedly sectarian flavor, as those fleeing from Baghdad are/were predominately Sunnis seeking refuge from Shiite militias operating with, at least tacit, support from the Shiite dominated Iraqi government. The plight of the aggrieved Sunni ex-Baghdadis, as well as the larger political implications of the population shift, has made the resettlement (some would say "retaking") of Baghdad a central aim of Sunni insurgent groups (some now our partners in the Awakening movement) and Sunni politicians alike. This highly recommended report (warnining: pdf) from Rend al-Rahim Francke (via al-Aardvark) highlights the problem:
To the distress of the Sunnis, Baghdad is increasingly a Shia city, either because Sunnis are being pushed out or are choosing to leave. The geographic area of the capital in which Sunnis are now a majority and feel safe is shrinking. For example, some Sunni parts of Saydiya, a fierce battleground between Sunni and Shia militias, are now Shia controlled. Shia political parties and militias have taken over large sections of the city. Although this control reduces sectarian killing, it is a source of extreme anxiety to Sunni political groups, who fear above all the loss of the capital.
Actually, there are national implications as well according to Francke:
In the past year Sunnis who left Baghdad increasingly were escaping to Jordan rather than moving to safer Sunni areas of Iraq thereby affecting the country’s demographic profile. Their exodus is causing consternation to the leaders of the community, who see their numbers, political position, and leverage shrinking. A major Sunni demand now is not only to halt sectarian cleansing but to create the conditions in which refugees and displaced persons can return to their original homes and restore the former demographic composition of the city.
And, because the problem is not complicated enough, there are other elements at play behind the violent displacements that make the resettlement of displaced persons even more difficult:
Violence in neighborhoods now includes family vendettas avenging former murders and assassinations or revenge killing of former Baathists accused of criminality under the previous regime. The skein of violence is further tangled by the proliferation of gangs that are mini-mafias masquerading as sectarian or political militias. These groups are actually only interested in profit, and they engage in the lucrative trade of killing or evicting residents, looting their homes, and renting the houses to new residents. In the absence of law enforcement, the competition among rival mafias expands the range of targeted violence.
The solutions being discussed - to the extent they are being discussed at all - don't seem capable of defusing the fraught situation. From the DeYoung piece:
No, I don't imagine they will. As the hardships faced by displaced Iraqis (either those stranded in Jordan and Syria, or elsewhere in Iraq) mount, Iraq will be left with an increasingly desperate pool of potential extremists/combatants/irritants harboring a deep resentment and comprising nearly a sixth of the overall population (more when you exclude the largely unaffected Kurdistan, leaving Kirkuk out of the equation for now). When viewed at from that angle, resolving this conundrum might just be the sine qua non of stabilization in Iraq.
"This is a major issue that's probably going to be resolved by new housing construction as opposed to wholesale evictions and resettlements," [aide to Petraeus, Col. William E.] Rapp said. "But we have been asking, pleading with the government of Iraq to come up with a policy so that it's not put upon our battalion commanders and the [Iraqi] battalion commanders to figure it out on the ground." [...]
Seeing the problem as one of new housing construction is an indication of the lowered expectations that have come to characterize many aspects of the current U.S. push for political reconciliation in Iraq. But U.N. and other aid officials argue that the status quo is unacceptable.
"People have papers. There should be a law. Houses cannot just be taken like that; people will not accept it," Siri said.