No Going Back
Little relief in sight for millions of displaced Iraqis
Sep 1, 2007
50 Min read time
“You have now entered Iraq,” my taxi driver joked. We had in fact just entered Sayida Zeinab, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus. This shrine city, long a destination for Shia pilgrims, had become home to an estimated one million Iraqis seeking refuge in Syria. “Everybody is Iraqi,” laughed another driver after several people he had asked for directions replied in Iraqi Arabic that they did not know. Indeed, walking through the alleys of Sayida Zeinab I felt as though I were in Iraq, except it was safe. After nearly three years in the war-torn country, I had started to fear Iraqi men; all strangers were potential kidnappers.
Along with the refugees, some of Iraq’s institutions have come to Syria too, although, so far, the sectarian violence has not. In one alley I came across the famous Baghdad restaurant “Patchi al Hati.” Patchi is sheep’s head, the meal I dreaded most during my years in Iraq. The restaurant’s owner had fled four months earlier “because of the terrorism and looting,” the chef explained over an immense steaming pot giving off the pungent smell. Anybody with money in Iraq was a target for kidnappers and extortionists. “They heard we were a famous restaurant and thought we were millionaires,” he told me.
In another alley I walked past the field office of one of Iraq’s most important Shia clerics, Ayatollah Kadhim al Haeri. Following the American war that overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime, al Haeri had urged his followers to kill Baathists. Further down the street I found Muqtada al Sadr’s representative’s office, also guarded by security officials. The two Shia clerics had once been close but had fallen out. Al Sadr is now considered the most powerful man in Iraq; his militia, the Madhi Army, controls much of Iraq’s security forces and is largely responsible for sectarian attacks against Sunnis.
Inside the office of the Sadr Martyr, as Muqtada’s office was called (in reference to his father), I attended a recitation on of the story of Karbala. It was the month of Muharram, when Shias commemorate the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammed’s grandson Hussein, slain in 680 in a battle that crystallized the division between Sunni and Shia Islam, a rift violently reopened by the war in Iraq. Dozens of shoes were piled on the stairway, and in a wooden shelf outside a room where men clad in customary Mahdi army garb—black shirts with black head scarves or head bands—sat listening to Sheikh Ali wail the story of Hussein’s bravery and betrayal. The men began to sob, burying their heads in their hands or between their knees. For Sheikh Ali, the story of perfidy and resistance to tyranny was a parable of his community’s current oppression at the hands of Americans and Sunnis. “They are doing the same thing with the poor children and people on the streets,” he cried out. He concluded by asking God to end the American occupation, free their hostages in Baghdad, and pray for the Mahdi Army.
On a different street I found three Sunni friends from Baquba. Firas had been shot a year earlier; his brother had been killed. He and Hamza had fled with their families to Syria one month earlier after Shia militiamen attacked their homes. Ali had been in Syria for a year and a half. In Iraq three of his uncles had been killed in front of his eyes and a cousin had also been murdered. “Because we are Sunnis,” he said, when I asked him why. “My school is gone. My father has no work. I’m never going back.”
Many of the Sunni Iraqis I knew began to feel intimidated in the fall of 2005. Sunni leaders had boycotted elections and by mid 2005 the Iraqi government, dominated by sectarian Shia Islamist parties and their militias, aggressively targeted Sunnis, who suddenly realized they were vulnerable. By early 2007 all my Sunni Iraqi friends were trying to leave Iraq. “Here Sunnis and Shias have no problems,” Firas said. “Everyone who comes to Syria is a peaceful man who wants to make a living for his family.” They all blamed the Americans and the Iraqi government for their plight, and agreed that the Syrians had been good to them.
Unlike many Shia refugees in Syria, mostly men who have come alone in search of work, most of the Sunnis and other Iraqi minorities have fled with their families. Since the spring of 2003 up to three million have fled Iraq, adding to the two or three million Iraqis who had been exiled before the overthrow of Saddam. All together, they compose a vast Iraqi diaspora throughout the Arab world, with the largest numbers in Syria (about 1.7 million) and Jordon (about 750,000). At least another two million are internally displaced, stranded inside Iraq, with many seeking shelter in Kurdistan. Kristele Younes of the Washington, D.C.–based Refugees International, who recently completed a tour of the affected countries, estimates that 50,000 are displaced within Iraq each month and tens of thousands are leaving. Few can imagine returning home.
The international response to the refugee crisis was extremely weak until recently, and it’s not at all clear that it is sufficient now. In June the International Organization for Migration, one of the main American NGOs, issued an appeal for $85 million over two years, but it has not received even half of that amount. The UN, for its part, has significantly expanded its presence in the region. Since 2006 United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) increased its budget from $23 million to $123 million. UNHCR has also issued a common appeal with UNICEF to raise $129 million to fund education for refugees. Other UN agencies have become more active, including the World Food Program. The United States traditionally funds approximately 25 percent of UNHCR appeals across the world. In Iraq it is doing the same, responding to this crisis the way it would to any other. But this is not any other crisis. It is an American-made humanitarian catastrophe. And the presence or absence of U.S. troops committed to a military mission for however many months or years is irrelevant to that problem.
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One explanation for why the international community has been slow to act is that is has been waiting for U.S. leadership. But for the U.S. to acknowledge the size and seriousness of the humanitarian disaster in Iraq would be to admit that the recent troop “surge” is not working. According to a senior UN official, “the U.S. government doesn’t want to admit there is a refugee problem because it is a sign of failure.” It would also mean acknowledging that a massive process of ethnic cleansing has taken place under the watch of the U.S.-backed government—indeed, that it has been perpetrated by the Iraqi government’s own security forces. Iraq’s Christian and Sabean minorities were decimated and have left for good. Baghdad, now cleansed and controlled by Shias, is irrevocably a Shia city, and its former Sunni-majority neighborhoods are ghost towns.
The numbers tell that story. “First the minorities left Iraq,” a UNHCR official told me, “now we get Sunnis targeted by Shia militias.” Until February 2006 the Sunnis and Shias were proportionally represented among Iraqi refugees registered with the UNHCR. But one month later the number of Sunnis shot up, far exceeding all the others. Although Iraq’s Shias are said to compose 65 percent of its population, in January 2007 more than three times the number of Sunnis (3,144) were registered than Shia (901). The next month it was four to one. Ninety-five percent were from Baghdad. And because only those Iraqis in grave need approach UNHCR, even these numbers vastly underestimate the crisis.
Every day between one thousand and three thousand Iraqis entered Syria through the border at al Tanf. Dusty and dazed families gather inside and outside the captain’s small, drab concrete office, filling out applications and waiting for their names to be called. One man, Abu Ibrahim, told me “There isn’t an Iraqi here who wants to enter and hasn’t lost a brother or father, or received a threat.” A Sunni from Saidiya, a Baghdad neighborhood where sectarian militias battled one another, he complained that the Americans did nothing. “In my neighborhood, the head of the city council was killed just three meters away from one of their check points,” he told me. “Let the whole world know that we Iraqis want nothing from Iraq. Not its oil or gas. All we want is to be left alone. The Iraqi leaders go to neighboring countries and ask them to repatriate us to Iraq. Why? So that they will rule and slaughter us.” To those who knew him, he was called Omar, a Sunni name that would have made him a target of death squads. “‘Omar’ is not allowed to enter Baghdad,” he said. He had heard rumors that the Syrians would send Iraqis back to Iraq to renew their visas. “We’ll be slaughtered there if we go back. Civilians have no life in Iraq. There is no government, only armies.”
Sitting nearby in a car, an elderly Sunni woman from Ghazaliya, in western Baghdad, was waiting for her family to return with their passports. “Is this democracy to tell people to kill and displace people?” she asked me. “Our situation in Iraq is miserable, worse than miserable. What have we gained from the oil? Even in winter we have no kerosene to put in the stove. There is no gas, no security. Only killings and explosions. The children do not go to school.” It was her second trip to Syria. She had returned to Baghdad to bring more of her family, which would now number approximately 30 people. She began to cry. “Please get our voices to the world,” she begged. “What did the United Nations do for us? What did America do for us? ”
In the Jaramana district of Damascus, refugees come to the Ibrahim al Khalil convent for assistance. The convent is the only white structure amid graying and incomplete buildings so hastily thrown together that many are unpainted and lack glass in the windows. Sister Malaki, an elderly nun who runs the convent, expressed wonder at how quickly the neighborhood had been built since the Iraqis began showing up. It used to take her 30 minutes just to see a taxi on the street, she said; now the streets are filled with them and she has to wait an hour to find an empty one. The first wave of refugees came in the spring of 2006, she said, but the largest numbers began arriving that fall. “Now it’s mostly cases of extreme poverty and people who will never go back to Iraq,” she said. “They fully reject returning to Iraq. They will die. The people who really suffer are those who had a lot, educated, university people. Now they are begging. They show me pictures of what they had.”
Christians and other minorities were among the first to be targeted in the chaos introduced to Iraq with the American invasion and occupation. Attacks against Christians persist; on June 3 of this year a Chaldean Catholic priest was slain along with three assistants in Mosul. Iraq’s 34,000 Palestinians were also punished by the new Shia militias, but they found few places to run to. By April 2003 I found them expelled from their homes and forced to live in tents in Baghdad. Hundreds fled to the Syrian border carrying little with them but gruesome stories. One family’s daughter was kidnapped by the Badr Corps (a Shia militia linked to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the exile party established in Iran). She was gang raped and murdered on film, which was then delivered to them as a warning.
An estimated 7,000 Palestinians managed to enter Syria on fake Iraqi passports. The Syrians agreed to settle a few hundred Palestinians in the Hol camp in Syria’s Kurdish territory. Local Kurds view it as a new colonization project and a sign that the Syrians want to Arabize the region. According to UNHCR, in 2003 there were 23,000 Palestinians registered in Baghdad and 27,000 in all of Iraq. In mid 2007 their number was estimated to be 15,000. “They are people perceived to be a legacy of the past and associated with the Sunni Arab insurgency,” a UNHCR official told me. “Our agenda is to extract them from hell.” He spoke of the silent slaughter of the Palestinians. Even Sunni militias were killing Palestinians, accusing them of collaborating with Shias precisely because they were still alive.
For those Iraqis who do make it to Syria, there is little assistance. Some rely on the same political parties they know from Iraq. In Damascus I met Hamid al Hitti, a tall, well-dressed and groomed man with a thin mustache. A former businessman, Hamid was the unofficial representative of Dr. Saleh al Mutlaq, leader of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, the fifth-largest political party in the Iraqi National Assembly. The Front represented a relatively secular Sunni nationalist movement that opposed the occupation and warned against the “genocide” Sunnis were facing. I had last interviewed Dr. Saleh in the spring of 2006 in his office in Baghdad on the day he had buried his brother Talal, who had been kidnapped and slain. When I met Hamid he was on the phone with an Iraqi whose visa had expired. “Don’t go to the immigration office,” he was saying, “you will be deported immediately. Let me make a few phone calls.”
Hamid, who had previously worked for the Front in Jordan, was trying to help the Iraqi refugee community as well as coordinating the delivery of aid inside Anbar Province with humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. He expressed gratitude to the Italian Red Cross for being “very helpful with people who can’t get to hospitals for security, sectarian, or economic reasons.” Hamid had also helped open a refugee camp in the town of Hit for Iraqis fleeing the American siege of Ramadi. “The minister of health is from the Sadrist current,” Hamid explained, referring to Muqtada al Sadr, “and unfortunately he is sectarian and he prevents aid and supplies from coming in.” He maintained that the Ministry of Health neglected Sunni-dominated provinces. He also complained that “militias,” meaning Shia militias, controlled the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.
Hamid continued: “The American government is stupid. They invaded and gave Iraq to Iran.” I asked him if the sectarian violence destroying Iraq had been exported to Syria. “Sunnis and Shias are refugees and share the same situation, and both are victims.” Hamid added that Sunnis had sympathized with the Shia victims of Israel’s war on nearby Lebanon in July 2006, but the execution of Saddam Hussein by Shia militiamen in Iraq that December had changed things. “We were crying for Lebanese and Hezbollah martyrs before Saddam’s execution,” he said. “Saddam’s execution was a provocation to Iraqis, Arabs, and Muslims.” Like many Iraqi Sunnis faced with permanent dispossession, Hamid had begun to rethink decisions taken by Sunni leaders in the early days of the occupation of Iraq, and he criticized these leaders for banning Sunni participation in the Iraqi government and security forces.
One hour away from Damascus is the town of Zabadani. With its low mountains and fresh air, it is a summer resort for Syrians. There Hamid introduced me to Haj Yassin, a thick and boisterous man dressed in a dishdasha. Haj Yassin, also from Hit, had arrived in Syria eight months earlier. One night in 2003 American soldiers raided his home and arrested him along with his two sons. They were held for one week. “Then they would come every day and search our home and patrol near our home. Since 2004 we haven’t slept in our house,” he told me. “Sorry, I’m sorry!” he mocked the Americans, using the few words he had learned from them. “What is this ‘sorry’? They broke our doors and windows five times.”
Haj Yassin sent his family to live in western Baghdad’s Ghazaliya district in 2005. Two months later their home was raided yet again; American soldiers broke in and tied up Haj Yassin and three others, blindfolded them, and drove them to a helicopter. They were denied a bathroom, water, or food for a long time, he complained. Their destination was Abu Ghraib, where Haj Yassin would remain for two months. “They put us in small rooms, one meter by one meter. There was no light,” he said, noting that he also saw many people shackled. Haj Yassin was then taken to Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, where he spent another eight months. As he led the call to prayer in Camp Bucca, female soldiers ridiculed him and his fellow prisoners as they prayed. “They are liars when they talk about human rights,” he shouted at me. “If any problems happened, if it was one person in two hundred, then they were all punished.” In March 2006, he was driven back to Abu Ghraib and given $20 before his release. On the night of Saddam Hussein’s execution some nine months later Haj Yassin was arrested yet again by the Albu Nimr tribe in Hit, whom the Americans had hired to serve as local proxies. Two days after his release he finally left for Syria. “I was tired of problems,” he said, “I can’t sleep in my house.” Four days before I met him in Syria he received word that his home in Hit had been raided once more. “These things happened to everybody in Hit,” he told me.
Like most Iraqi Sunnis, Haj Yassin blamed Iran for his plight, referring to Iraq’s Shia neighbors as Safavids, a reference to the Persian dynasty. “Allah doesn’t accept that the Safavids rule the Arabs,” he shouted at me again, waving his large fists. I asked him how Sunnis in Iraq could possibly triumph when they were outnumbered. “God is with us!” he said, “Each Sunni is worth one hundred of them. Sunnis, as few as they are, will return and kill the Americans, Iranians, and apostates.” Haj Yassin agreed that the Sunni decision to boycott the new Iraqi government had opened them to domination by Shia militias. “But that doesn’t matter,” he insisted. “Seven thousand years ago there was blood up to the knees and it will be worse than that and that’s how Iraq will be freed. Bush and his allies will get slaughtered in Iraq. If we are believers we will be victorious.”
When I told Haj Yassin that I suspected he and his son were members of the resistance, he smiled and said, “Our men are like the November rain that sweetens fruit, and they are strong enough that they are willing to stab themselves with daggers!” At this he plunged his fist dramatically into his own belly.
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The crisis in Iraq has the entire region on edge waiting to see if Iraq will come to them. While Sunni leaders in the region, whether in Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, have had to pay lip service to anti-imperialism and Arab nationalism by calling for an end to the occupation, the truth is that off the record nothing frightens them more than an American withdrawal from Iraq.
Fear of successive waves of Iraqi refugees resonates throughout the Middle East, and no discussion of Arab governments’ reluctance to acknowledge their plight can begin without reference to the Palestinian experience. In 1948 up to 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from Palestine by Jewish militias. They were dispersed throughout the region, unable to return home and unable to assimilate fully into the countries to which they fled. Although the Palestinian cause and its initial popularity in the Arab world eased their integration into Syria and elsewhere, this generosity did not last forever and in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, and elsewhere, the good will ran out. The Palestinians soon organized, formed armed groups, and tried to return home. These groups were often manipulated by various governments in the region for their own ends, and some even fought one another. The presence of the Palestinians also contributed to the destabilization of several countries, while in places like Lebanon they were preyed upon by more powerful militias, which slaughtered many of them. Today radical groups based in Palestinian refugee camps are exporting fighters to Iraq.
Unable to return home, running out of savings, carrying with them sectarian grudges and many with military experience, Iraqi refugees may yet destabilize much of the region. By September the Syrians had grown so concerned that they changed their open-door policy, placing severe restrictions on fleeing Iraqis unless they were businessmen or academics. Iraqis also had to apply for visas at the Syrian embassy in Baghdad. While Jordan maintained its own restrictions, and though its unofficial policy has long been to prevent Iraqis from feeling at home lest they decide to stay, it reversed itself and now allows Iraqi refugees to attend Jordanian public schools.
But the one factor militating against regional destabilization is that until now Iraqi refugees, unlike the Palestinians, have not settled in camps; instead they have been absorbed into cities like Beirut, Damascus, Amman, and Cairo. That will make it harder to organize or mobilize them, but also more difficult to help or monitor them. Jordan and particularly Syria have shown extreme generosity to Iraq’s refugees, but they are both straining under the burden. Also, unlike the Palestinians, who immediately after their expulsion had an intense desire to return to their homes, most of the Iraqi refugees do not want to return, or at least do not expect to.
Laurens Jolles, of the UNHCR in Damascus, worried about the future of Syria, which has taken in more refugees than any other country. “The problems of Iraqis have not come to Syria,” he said referring to sectarianism. “The (Iraqi) refugee communities don’t integrate and the government has good control, but the refugees are less manageable and understandable because they are not in camps. One million people are uprooted and they don’t know what the future has in store for them. It’s normal to have some degree of criminality, violence, and disruption.” Among the Iraqis in Syria child labor is becoming a problem, since the parents are unable to work and children are easier to hide. Children are dropping out of school as a result, and Iraqi prostitutes are becoming extremely common. One Syrian journalist quipped that he was going to write an article titled “Pay with a pack of Marlboro, get an Iraqi girl.” UN screeners report seeing numerous victims of torture, detention, rape, and kidnapping. Most have family members who were killed, and many are intellectuals.
Syria has been generous in the past; it housed 400,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes, and during Israel’s July 2006 war against Lebanon, the country took in up to half a million Lebanese refugees. It’s population is only 19 million. “At one point Syrian society wont be able to accommodate them,” worried an International Committee of the Red Cross aid worker. Leaders throughout the Middle East are increasingly wary not only of the economic consequences of taking in such large numbers, but of the violence that could come with the spread of sectarianism, harboring terrorists, and the shift in the regional balance of power as large parts of Iraq are cleansed of Sunnis.
Hesham Youssef, a top aide to Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa told me, “The Sunni-Shia feud is the genie coming out of the bottle. Those problems weren’t there before the Americans came. Our fears are that this will spread. The seeds are there. We can feel it in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia. We are more worried about this than the presence of foreign troops. They will leave eventually.” He criticized the American refusal to announce a date when the occupation would end, but continued, “You can’t just say to the U.S. ‘you made this mess, now clean it up.’ At the end of the day it’s our region and we can’t run away. We have spoken to a number of Arab countries and expect they will contribute. The U.S. mistake is dealing with the issue as a security issue. The root of the problem is not security, it’s politics. Our hope is to try to deal with main source of the problem. If the situation on the ground improves, people will return. But we haven’t been that successful on this issue.” Youssef mentioned a future Arab League meeting on Iraq that many hoped could stabilize the country. “Prospects are not good,” he admitted.
A Senior Egyptian diplomat voiced similar concerns. “What’s happening in Iraq is a tragedy in human terms,” he told me.
But the Sunni-Shia dimension is really new and really scary. People are using sectarianism to achieve political ends. People are now being labeled Sunni or Shia, and not only in Iraq. In the past you had radical, progressive, reactionary, moderate, or extreme Arab countries. Now we have the ‘Sunni Arab country of Egypt’ versus the ‘Shia country of Iran.’ I never dreamed in my wildest dreams until three months ago that I would read in the paper ‘the Sunni Arab country of Egypt.’ We always thought in terms of geopolitics. Never has Egypt thought of itself as a Sunni country defending Sunnis everywhere. When we speak to Iran it is as Iran, not Shia Iran. If Iran was Buddhist we would still be concerned about their nuclear weapons program. There is a difference in speaking politically about the axis of Tehran, Damascus, Baghdad and invoking the worst kind of religious fanaticism. It’s part of an atmosphere of confusion. Five years ago if you asked about Iran, people would think of an Islamic regime (and not a Shia one). I blame the Western media for labeling people Sunni and Shia. I heard the ‘Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein!’ I screamed when I heard that. He thought of himself as Saddam Hussein, not as a Sunni leader. So far Egypt has been immune to the sectarianism. My worry is not about sectarianism being exported to Egypt, but as a phenomenon in the region because of Lebanon, Jerusalem, radicalism, and an atmosphere of extremism, and it becomes easy to switch from what is happening in al Aqsa [the second Palestinian intifada, launched in 2000] to Iraq. There is a feeling that all these incidents feed into an atmosphere of tension, and people are more vulnerable to those feelings.
The diplomat lamented that Egypt’s attempts to initiate a reconciliation process between the Iraqi parties had failed. “Some Iraqi parties” had rejected it, he said. “At one point Maliki said, ‘I have my own reconciliation commission and I don’t need the Arab League.’”
Egypt stopped issuing visas to Iraqis in 2006, although it is widely claimed that Iraqis who pay at the Egyptian embassies in Syria and Jordan can obtain them. Having already absorbed between two and four million Sudanese and with a high rate of unemployment, the state’s weak social services would be further burdened if more Iraqis were allowed to enter. As of April of this year between 100,000 and 140,000 were living in Egypt, but only some 5,500 had registered for an Asylum Seeker’s Card with the UNHCR. That’s about to change, since many of the middle-class Iraqis now in Egypt have begun to run out of resources and they will soon likely turn to the UN for assistance. Cairo’s UNHCR office anticipates registering a further 15,000 to 20,000 Iraqis by the end of 2007. But unemployment rates and concerns about overburdening the system aren’t the only reasons Egypt no longer lets Iraqis in. They are also concerned about terrorism. “Tourism is a major industry, so one incident would cost millions in lost revenue,” said the UN official. In addition, behind the nonsectarian talk, Egyptians are afraid of Shias. An Iraqi diplomat told me that Egyptians “think Iraqi Shias have links to Iran.” Many have raised fears of a Shia wave that could make permanent demographic changes to Iraq. “You are taking them from Iraq and implanting them somewhere else and most of them are Sunnis,” a high-ranking Egyptian diplomat told me. “It disturbs me. It means the whole area will be Shia.”
Saad Ridha, the charge d’affaires at the Iraqi embassy in Cairo, was also worried about the influx of Iraqis into Egypt. “You shouldn’t give them the impression that they are refugees and that third countries will accept them. They are educated and if they leave Iraq it will need a generation to educate Iraqis.” Ridha was opposed to the resettlement of Iraqis outside the Middle East. He wanted Egypt, Jordan, and Syria to let them stay for one year, and wait to see what would happen in Iraq. He was especially worried about losing doctors and engineers.
The prospect of crisis similar to that of the Palestinian refugees is especially worrisome for Jordan, which closed its borders to Iraqis in March of this year. At least half of its nearly six million people are Palestinians who were expelled from their homes in 1948 and 1967. In 1991, following the first Gulf War, Kuwait expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and most of them ended up in Jordan as well. Historically Jordan had close ties with Iraq dating back to the latter’s monarchy.
In a fast-food restaurant in Amman I sat with a major in Jordan’s powerful General Intelligence Department. There are more than 800,000 Iraqis in Jordan; he insisted that the number exceeded one million. But he denied that they were refugees because they had not been forced out of Iraq. When I asked what he expected a Sunni living in Shia-militia-dominated Basra should do, he told me that the Sunni should simply move to a Sunni area of Iraq. “Nothing positive has come from the Iraqis,” he said. In November of 2005 Iraqi suicide bombers associated with Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s al Qaeda movement struck three Western-owned Jordanian hotels, at one of which a wedding reception was taking place. It was a reminder that one of Zarqawi’s chief targets was the Jordanian regime, and that it had excellent information. Zarqawi’s targets were not mere civilians, but a meeting of regional intelligence officials, and he succeeded in killing high-ranking Palestinian operatives. Iraqis began facing interrogations at the border, and beginning in 2006, Jordan imposed strict restrictions on the entry of Iraqis. By the end of that year a sign on the Jordanian border proclaimed that men between 18 and 35 years of age could not enter. Families entering with many belongings are turned away as well. There have been widespread reports that Iraqis are questioned at the border and the airport about whether they are Sunni or Shia.
Iraqis at first were given three-month tourist visas, but when they left Jordan to renew their visas they could not return. As a result many Iraqis chose to stay and fall into illegal status, going underground, unable to work formally and often not getting paid for the work they did illegally. Many Iraqis live in virtually empty apartments, with only mattresses on the floor. Their children did not have access to schools or medical care.
Jordanian society is very sympathetic with the plight of Iraq’s Sunnis; Shias are more likely to be turned away. The Arab media has also reported that Jordanian intelligence set up a unit to combat the Shia threat based on the anti-Communist model of the past. A young Iraqi Shia man working with an NGO in Jordan reports being regularly questioned about his identity. “In Jordan if you want to work they might ask you if you are Shia or Sunni? and if you are Shia you can’t work,” he told me. “Taxi drivers ask me, ‘Are you Iraqi? Are you Sunni or Shia?’” he said, and when he answers truthfully they say, “‘Why are you helping the Americans?’ After Saddam was executed, they asked me why didn’t Iraqis make a revolution after his execution. They don’t believe Saddam committed crimes. One asked me, ‘Are you supporting those Iranians killing Iraqis?’ I don’t argue, don’t want trouble or to be taken to police station. I bought a bicycle to avoid taxis.”
Dr. Muayad al Windawi is a Shia professor of political science who left the University of Baghdad in May 2005. He did not expect the sectarianism to spread to Jordan. “In Jordan security is too strong and Iraqis here don’t want to engage in sectarianism. But over time things might change,” he told me. “I still believe the worst is coming, not only to Iraq but in the region. It’s the first stage of a conflict which might lead to a Sunni bloc against Shias.”
The high-ranking UN official I met in Cairo worried that the Iraqi refugees were vulnerable to recruitment by extremist organizations. “Hamas and Hezbollah are buying people through social networks” in Palestine and Lebanon, he told me. “Look at the Moroccan community in France,” he added, referring to their alienation. “Its because of frustration,” he said. “If they stay on the street you will have youth violence or terrorism. If people are in need they turn to crime or terrorism. They come to us and queue at our door for five hours to get a registration card,” he told me, whereas radical groups would be able to offer them something more substantial.
The cross-flow of millions of refugees out of Iraq, and innumerable fighters into Iraq, and the export of dangerous ideas such as sectarianism and jihadism suggests that the Iraqi civil war is fomenting regional conflict. According to Reinoud Leenders of the University of Amsterdam and formerly of the International Crisis Group, the refugees are “one dramatic aspect of an emerging Middle Eastern version of a regional conflict formation not dissimilar to the regionally entwined armed conflicts of Central and West Africa, and the Balkans.” He continued:
If anyone thought the Iraqi puzzle itself was difficult to resolve, one hasn’t witnessed yet what, in my view, is going to come very soon: an Iraqi civil war with tentacles reaching out to Beirut,Damascus, Ankara, and Riyadh,causing all or most of the region’s problems to be immensely complicated and intensified further. Already Arab regimes and militants are rephrasing their agendas in reference to Iraq; it is like the U.S. and its messing up in Iraq has given all its regional adversaries a new political idiom and refreshed self-confidence. . . . The Syrian regime is capitalizing on the refugee phenomenon for its own gain. It has always used political developments involving its neighbors and its own role in them as a form of ‘strategic rent,’ as a resource used to extract concessions from its rivals, make deals, and turn it against its own disgruntled population that has been waiting for genuine liberalization. By hosting up to a million Iraqi refugees, the Syrian regime appears to be telling ordinary Syrians: ‘just see what a mess the U.S. made in Iraq, and here they are all safe and live normal lives. Would anyone want to be friendly with the U.S. or demand democracy? One senior Syrian official told me that there will be a moment when Syria will demand concessions from the U.S. in return for a Syrian constructive role in addressing this crisis which is the U.S.’s making. . . . And, frankly, they do have a point. Why would they be paying the price for the mind-boggling blunders that caused this refugee crisis in the first place?”
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Iraq’s neighbors aren’t the only ones paying a price. Many of the more stable governorates within Iraq have been overwhelmed by the influx of internally displaced Iraqis. The three northern governorates of Erbil, Dohuk, and Suleimaniya—Iraqi Kurdistan— have been spared the violence that has destroyed the rest of the country. In fact there is scant evidence one is in Iraq when visiting Kurdistan. Nary an Iraqi flag hangs from government buildings or decorates the shoulders of Kurdish soldiers of the nominal Iraqi army or police. Pictures of Kurdish leaders only, such as Masud Barzani or Jalal Talabani, hang on the walls of government offices, and it’s hard to find anybody who speaks Arabic, except the 150,000 internally displaced Iraqis who have sought sanctuary in Kurdistan after fleeing the 15 other majority-Arab governorates, especially Mosul, Diyala, Baghdad, and Basra. Still, some residents of Iraqi Kurdistan worry that internal refugees will impose demographic pressures in the future.
In Kalak, a small village north of Erbil, I visited Lieutenant Majid, the local Asayish, or Kurdish Security, officer. His office was well stocked with plastic flowers and colored files on displaced residents. Joining Kalak’s 1,623 original families were 600 Kurdish families from Baghdad and Diyala, 36 Arab families, five Sabeans, and one Christian. In the nearby town of Bartala, also under Majid’s jurisdiction, one thousand families had sought refuge. They were mostly Christians from Basra. Majid told me that the non-Kurds had started arriving two years earlier. Some rented houses, others squatted in public buildings. Most displaced persons in the north rent houses or apartments at prices far higher than what they were accustomed to. Most are also unable to find work. Unlike many of the refugees in Egypt and Syria, they are in dire need of basic supplies. They had not received any outside assistance, Majid said, and the schools were overcrowded, with up to 80 students per class. The new children could not speak Kurdish, and there were no Arabic-speaking teachers. “Families are continuing to come,” he said. “We look at them like brothers and we respect them,” he said. “We are not like Saddam’s Asayish. We help them.” He told me that there had not been any problems with the new arrivals. Like many Kurdish officials, he hoped the internally displaced Iraqis would be housed in camps. Majid opened a file at random. It belonged to a Shia family with nine children. “He did not agree to take weapons and kill Sunnis,” he explained of the father.
I then visited the home of Dr. Omar al Samarai, a dentist from Baghdad, but found only his wife and two children. She introduced herself as Aswan Hamza Janabi, “meaning I am Sunni,” she said. As we entered she gestured toward the inside of the house with disdain. “This is how a doctor lives,” she said. Dr. Omar had moved from Baghdad’s Shaab district to the Jihad district one year after the war “because we are Sunnis and all of Shaab is Shia, and guys from Iran started killing Sunnis. People liked my husband, so they warned him. They hurt us, we suffered, but I don’t hate them. My mother is a Shia from Najaf.” Dr. Omar’s last name implied he was a Sunni from Samarra, site of the devastating February 2006 attack on a Shia shrine. After that attack the Mahdi Army attacked his clinic. Aswan still hoped to return to Baghdad. “Life is difficult,” she said, “we are not used to living like this.”
In the village of Baradash I met a family of women from the northwestern Arabic and Turkman city of Tal Afar. Their fathers had both worked as contractors building a road paid for by the Americans. Fourteen days after they started the project they were murdered. “Then people told us you should leave the house because they will kill your whole family,” one of the older girls told me. A Kurdish friend of their father, Jalal, invited them to Baradash, a town of 5,000 families that has absorbed 500 families of refugees, mostly Kurds. “At first they didn’t accept us because we are Turkmen,” they told me, but Jalal persuaded the Mukhtar, or headman, to let them in. They sold their belongings and bought a home there. With no Arabic-language school in town the girls could not continue their education. “People are very welcoming,” one of them told me, and they all agreed that they never want to return to Tal Afar. “Our family was very damaged,” one said. They were living off of what little was left of their savings.
Elsewhere in town I met a Kurdish family from Mosul’s Baqr district. One of Iraq’s largest and most important cities, Mosul receives very little attention because of its remoteness from Baghdad, some 250 miles to the south, yet it is extremely dangerous. Locals report that everybody is targeted—Kurds, Christians, Sunnis—by masked men. They struggle to find logic to the violence, which even targets Sunni Arab clerics on the streets. The Baqr neighborhood had been majority Kurdish, the father explained to me, but many Kurds had been killed there and he had received death threats over the phone, so the family left. “We have children,” his wife interjected, “maybe they will kill them, so we left.” Before the war there was no difference between Arab and Kurd in Mosul, they explained. In Badrash they rent a home for $225 a month, and have received no assistance from any NGOs or state authorities. The father manages to make enough as a carpenter to cover the rent. Although, like most internally displaced Iraqis, they had not been able to transfer their ration card from the public distribution system to their new location, they managed to receive their monthly rations by paying someone $20 a month to deliver it to them. Returning to Mosul to transfer the card was unthinkable because of the danger. The main problem was the rent, the father said, because it is too high.
“We need to keep both eyes open,” Mamud Hussein Haji, the legal advisor for the Ministry of Interior in Erbil told me, “if we close one eye then the situation will be like in Baghdad.” He suggested that camps should be built for the internally displaced outside the city. “It will be easier to control,” he said.
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Like the rest of the international community and Western media, the UN was extremely late in appreciating that Iraq presented a humanitarian disaster. Before the February 2006 bombing of the shrine at Samarra, which unleashed Shia militias on Iraqi Sunnis and other minorities, the UN handled temporary and local displaced-persons situations resulting from U.S. operations such as the destruction of Fallujah. Since then, as the UN has grasped the extent of the refugee crisis, its hands have been tied by its dependence on a barely existent Iraqi government that doesn’t recognize the problem. That’s largely the fault of the UN itself. Having failed to prevent the war, it has focused on rehabilitation, development, and nation-building, and neither the UN and its country team nor its donor countries have declared that mission dead or done anything to divert aid directly to Iraqis in need.
In that way, they have helped sustain the lie that the Iraqi government works. In fact, in 2006 the Iraqi government had a budget surplus of seven billion dollars, which made it difficult for the UN to appeal for money from the international community. Their logic was that if the Iraqi government is not allocating money for internally displaced persons or refugees, why should we? This failure to send aid is a huge failure of governance, but nobody in the international community has had the courage to state the obvious: that the government is a chimera.
Mired in a woefully inadequate developmental approach, the UN still depends on the central Iraqi authorities as a counterpart, even though it cannot rely on them. The major problem is that aid delivery flows through the public distribution system (PDS). During Saddam’s regime every Iraqi had the right to receive rations under a system established during the sanctions period in the context of the Oil for Food program that began in 1995. Run by the Iraqi Ministry of Trade, the system was one of the most efficient institutions in the Iraqi state. Eighty percent of Iraqis depended on the PDS before the war. Ministry of Trade distribution warehouses throughout the country fed local branches. Each family had a card it redeemed at the neighborhood branch. The family was tied to that branch alone.
After the 2003 invasion, food rations became more important than ever, as jobs disappeared and salaries dwindled. When the UN’s Oil for Food program was interrupted, the void was filled first by the World Food Program and then by the new Iraqi government. The PDS’s infrastructure was so efficient, it was pressed into service elsewhere: when voter registration began in November 2004 for the January 2005 elections, the data was drawn from the PDS rolls. The quality of the information was remarkably accurate, and there was a 20 percent error rate in details such as date and place of birth, ninety percent of the people found themselves on the list. PDS cards thus acquired new political significance.
Meanwhile, as more of the country fell outside the protection of Iraqi security or multinational forces, newly displaced Iraqis without resources have needed the PDS system for rations more than ever. As roads throughout Iraq have become increasingly treacherous, however, PDS supply trucks have been often unable to reach their destined governorates and much of the country has been cut off. Administrative corruption has weakened the efficiency of the distribution system. Those supply convoys that do reach their destinations often carry only partial rations, with key items missing. The World Food Program, which, like many other international agencies sees its role as supporting the Iraqi government, is reluctant to voice concern over the crumbling PDS system; it would imply that the Iraqi state is failing.
In addition to the violence, corruption, and inefficiency that keep aid from reaching poor and displaced Iraqis, more sinister factors are at work. Each family’s PDS card is tied to a specific location. When a family relocates it must apply at its local PDS branch for the transfer of the card, which must then be processed at the Ministry of the Interior before the new PDS branch is notified. The insecurity and violence that have caused so many Iraqis to flee make it prohibitive for them to return to their old neighborhoods to apply for the PDS transfer. Those displaced persons who manage to obtain some of their PDS rations do so only occasionally when relatives send them or they pay others to do so. Although some have tried to transfer their PDS registration cards, none have succeeded. In part this is attributable to the difficulties faced by the Iraqi government. Militias have cut off governorates and government offices from one another. Security concerns dominate all other priorities.
Politics also prevents the transfer of PDS cards to new locations. Iraqi authorities are in denial about the extent of the violence and displacement, preferring to view the problem as small scale and temporary. They are reluctant to initiate a process that could enshrine the displacement, potentially encouraging internally displaced persons to view their new homes as permanent. Given Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic strife, any demographic shifts have inherent political implications. Any transfer of the PDS card could conceivably allow Iraqis to vote in their new locations, and they could also be used to prove residency or even to serve in a local council.
This is something that Kurdish authorities, facing a wave of Arab migration from the south, are especially wary of, since political, demographic, and strategic considerations determine who the Kurds allow into the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG. The Kurds would like to expand their territory to include parts of Kirkuk and Diyala Province. The Iraqi Constitution mandates a referendum to determine the final status of these disputed territories. As a result Kurds from Diyala Province, and especially Khanaqin, are finding it difficult to gain entry into Suleimaniya and Erbil. Khanaqin is in the province of Diyala but it is de facto under the control of the KRG, which is not allowing Arabs or Turkmen to relocate there. Kurds from Kirkuk face similar obstacles when trying to relocate to Erbil or Suleimaniya because Kurdish authorities want them to stay where they are. The policy resembles the Serbian approach to the Croatian region of Kraina during the Balkan wars of the ’90s. The Kurds are also paying Arabs to leave Kirkuk. Nothing in the Iraqi Constitution allows the Kurds to prevent Arabs or other Iraqi citizens from coming in, but for the Kurds this is purely an internal security matter and is not negotiable.
Outside the Iqama office in Erbil, where residency permits are issued, hundreds of Arabs can be found every day lining up outside or sitting in the waiting room. Harish Khalid Ashgayi, who manages the office, explained to me that if they did not run background checks on the non-Kurds who sought residency in the north, then “every terrorist would easily enter area.” Although many Kurdish officials call for building displaced-persons camps outside the main cities, Ashgayi worried that such camps would attract even more displaced Iraqis. I asked him if an independent Kurdistan would grant them citizenship, and he said it would. Meanwhile the humanitarian crisis grows.
I visited the Amin Zaki primary school in Erbil’s Ayn Kawa district and found it overflowing with displaced students. Of the 1,500 children who attended the school in two shifts, more than 900 were displaced. The morning I visited 14 new displaced children had joined the school. Many of the teachers had fled recently as well. Lulu Hassan was a Kurd from Baghdad. Her family had owned a laundry in the Nafaq al Shurta district and it was burned down. Then their house was burned down. “We were accused of cooperating with the Americans,” she told me, “but it wasn’t true.” She explained that once they had washed laundry for the Americans and received a threatening letter. Her husband went north by himself at first, but then her neighbors were killed and she was scared. After she fled their house in Baghdad it was burned down.
Bassima, a Christian who had fled Mosul in February of 2007, was waiting outside the permit office. Her husband had fought in the Iran-Iraq war and disappeared in captivity. She had two children, one in college. He had been beaten on the street. “Why are you Christian?” the assailants had demanded. They had lived in the Jamia district of Mosul, which was mixed. All her neighbors were Kurds. “There was no difference then,” she said. “Now there is. Christians are killed and slaughtered. The priest was cut into pieces.” One week after they beat her son she decided to move.
Chaima Abdul Qader, from the Baghdad Jadida district, had fled In November 2006 with her husband and two children, her parents, her two sisters, and her brother and his wife. They are Sunnis. They had received a letter with anti-Sunni slurs giving them 48 hours to leave. “The problems started right after Samarra,” she said. After letters were sent to Sunnis one neighbor went to the local Sadrist office to complain. He was kidnapped and the next day they found his body in a garbage dump. “We were like brothers before,” she said of Sunnis and Shias, adding, “all problems come from Iran.”
Suham Abdul Rahman, a Sunni from Baghdad’s Baladiyat district, said the Mahdi Army had killed most of the Sunnis in her neighborhood. Her husband was dead but she had come with her three children, her son’s wife, and their children. “They didn’t give death threats, they just killed people right away,” she said. They owned a house in Baghdad, but after they left the police broke into it and stole everything. “The police is Mahdi Army,” she told me, “It won’t get better,” she said.
In the slums of Darato outside Erbil I found more poor displaced Iraqis. Najah Mahdi from Baquba had moved with his wife, their three children and his sister two months before I met him. A Sunni, he had worked in Baghdad at the Ministry of Transportation and was threatened, receiving two letters warning him to leave his job or be killed. “When we left we said we were going to Egypt so they wouldn’t know where we went,” he told me.
Ali Khalid, a Sunni window maker, had fled Baghdad’s Washash neighborhood with his wife and two children three months earlier. “We left all our belongings in Baghdad,” his wife, a teacher, told me. “Anyone who takes his things is killed on the road. They wait and watch. The government wants to make Baghdad Shia.”
What will happen to Iraq? Think Mogadishu, small warlords controlling various neighborhoods, militias preying on those left behind, more powerful warlords controlling areas with resources, such as oil fields, ports, and lucrative pilgrimage routes and shrines. Irredentist Sunni militias will attempt to retake their lost land, but they will be pushed into the Anbar Province, Jordan, and Syria, where they may link up with local Islamist militants to destabilize Amman and Damascus. Some will look to fight elsewhere; unable to continue the jihad in Iraq they will find common cause with Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, and others alienated from their societies and hateful of Shias. The new rump Shia statelet, including Baghdad and the South, will be quarantined by the Sunni states in the region and pushed inexorably into Iranian hands whether Shia Iraqis want this or not. It will be isolated and radicalized, and Shia militias loyal to Muqtada al Sadr, Abdul Aziz al Hakim, Muhamad al Yaqubi, and others will battle for power.
There is no “surge.” At best it can be called an ooze, a slow increase of American occupying forces by a mere 15 percent, consisting of few new soldiers and many whose terms of service have been merely extended. Yet the U.S. has doubled the size of its mission, announcing it will also take on the Shia militias as well as the Sunni ones. On the ground, that means American soldiers secure areas and then hand them over to Iraqi security forces who impose a reign of terror on the inhabitants. In the Iraqi civil war the army and police are not the solution; they are combatants, fighting on behalf of Shia-sectarian Islamist parties. The vaunted efforts to train Iraqi security forces have merely trained better death squads. The Americans continue to imprison thousands of Iraqis, and kill many others. Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations that would normally demand that the United States comply with international law and hand over imprisoned Iraqis to the “sovereign” Iraqi government are not doing so, knowing that their treatment at the hands of the government would be far worse than anything they would endure while in American captivity. The occupation is not benign. It is profoundly painful, humiliating, and lethal.
An American withdrawal would certainly lead other countries in the region, whether Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Syria, or Saudi Arabia, to increase their involvement in Iraq. It would also mean an expedited removal of Sunnis in Baghdad. But all this is happening anyway, so it doesn’t make much difference in terms of the fate of Iraq whether American military forces stay or leave.
The truth is that the American military will remain in Iraq for a long time. The large bases in Anbar Province, such as al Assad and Taqaddum are built to last, “an enduring presence,” as one Marine officer told me. Located in the remote desert, impregnable and only occasionally targeted by mortars, these bases will remain for decades. The Americans may eventually withdraw from the urban areas of Iraq, but full withdrawal, through the treacherous roads of the Anbar to Jordan, through the south past Shia militias on the way to Kuwait or even through the so-called Sunni Triangle, Samarra, and Tikrit or through Mosul to Kurdistan or Turkey, would be a withdrawal under fire and involve slaughter for the Iraqis.
The American occupation has been more disastrous than the Mongols’ sack of Baghdad in the 13th century. Iraq’s human capital has fled, its intellectuals and professionals, the educated, the moneyed classes, the political elite. They will not return. And the government is nonexistent at best. After finally succumbing to Iraqi pressure, the Americans submitted to elections but deliberately emasculated the central government and the office of the prime minister. Now Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki is the scapegoat for American failure in Iraq, and there are calls to remove him or overthrow him. But talk of a coup to replace Maliki fails to understand that he is irrelevant. Gone are the days when Baghdad was the only major city in Iraq, and whoever controlled Baghdad controlled the country. The continued focus on the theater in the Green Zone ignores the reality that events there have never determined what happens outside of it. Iraq is a collection of city states such as Baghdad, Mosul, Basra, Ramadi, Erbil, and others, each controlled by various warlords with their own militias. And the villages are entirely unprotected. Maliki will be the last prime minister of Iraq. When he is run out there will be no new elections, since they can’t be run safely and fairly anymore, and the pretense of an Iraqi state will be over.
It has become popular with former supporters of the war to blame the Iraqis for the Americans’ failure. The Iraqis did not choose democracy or the Iraqis did not choose freedom, Americans like to say, or the Iraqis have to decide to stop killing each other or Iraqis have to “step up.” But such complaints misplace the blame. Sunni and Shia Iraqis protested the American occupation as soon as it began, and demanded elections and sovereignty. The U.S. ignored their demands and instead imposed a dictator on them, Paul Bremer, hoping he would pave the way for an Iraqi strongman to rule in our stead. Other former supporters of the war, echoing the simplistic sentiments heard during the Balkan wars, now blame the alleged “ancient hatred” between Sunnis and Shias, who have been fighting each other for “thousands of years.” But Iraq had no history of civil war or sectarian violence even approaching this scale until the Americans arrived. Iraq is not Rwanda, where Hutus and Tutsis slaughtered each other and America could pretend it had no role. We did this to Iraq. And it is time the U.S and the international community “step up” to the resulting humanitarian nightmare.
I recently spoke to a close Iraqi friend, a Sunni doctor who was desperately trying to get his family out of Iraq. He had hired a fixer to obtain passports for his parents and brothers, because it was impossible otherwise and dangerous for Sunnis in particular. Though officially Iraqis have to pay only $20 or $30, fixers—typically friends or relatives of Iraqi government employees—charge some $600 per passport. My friend’s brother’s name had been misspelled and they had been waiting months for the new one. The fixer told them it would take a few days but it had been months. Then the government stopped issuing passports for six weeks. Then the fixer was arrested. My friend was planning to take his family to Aleppo in Syria. I told him I heard it was prettier and less crowded than Damascus. “We don’t care about the look,” he laughed.
At the time, Al Qaeda and Sunni militias were battling each other in the Baghdad neighborhood of Amriya. “You know what makes me crazy?” he asked me. “How they want to pull their troops out.” I was surprised. I thought he had been opposed to the American occupation; I certainly was. “You want them to stay now?” I asked. “Can you imagine what will happen if they left?” he asked. “I don’t know if things would be very different,” I responded. “If they left the government will kill all of us,” he told me. The government “will bomb Amriya because we all are terrorists in their eyes.” Before my friend succeeded in obtaining his passport, his father was murdered, his body found in a Baghdad morgue.
September 01, 2007
50 Min read time