- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

BAGHDAD — Handling the return of millions of Iraqis who fled to other countries or were driven from their homes during Saddam Hussein’s rule stands as one of the most daunting long-term challenges for the U.S. administrators running Iraq.

About 200,000 Iraqis are living in neighboring Iran, whose government is now eager to send them home. But U.S. officials are balking, worried that a flood of mainly Shi’ite Muslim Iraqis would further destabilize a situation that is precarious.

“We’re facing problems created by the occupying powers that prevent us from returning these refugees,” Ahmad Hosseini, Iran’s director general for refugee issues, recently told reporters at the Geneva offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“The occupying powers believe it’s not the proper time for all Iraqis who reside abroad to go back,” he said without elaborating.

More Iraqi exiles live in Iran than in any other country, except Jordan, most of them Shi’ites who are viewed with suspicion by Sunnis in Iraq as well as policy analysts in Washington because of their religious links to Iran’s mainly Shi’ite population.

U.S. officials say they support an orderly return of the refugees but decline to offer any specifics on a timetable, or what conditions would have to be met to create a stable environment.

“As a practical matter, we simply do not have at the moment the capacity to perform adequate security checks on people returning in large numbers,” said L. Paul Bremer, the chief of the civilian Coalition Provisional Authority, the occupying power in Iraq.

Returning refugees “must be well looked after once they get here,” he added.

Looming crisis

For more than a month, the United States and Iran have squabbled over everything from Tehran’s nuclear program to accusations that it is hiding operatives of terror network al Qaeda and attempting to foment rebellion in predominantly Shi’ite southern Iraq.

While the fate of Iraqi refugees adds to the inevitable sparring between Washington and Tehran, a looming crisis for Iraqi refugees stretches to nearly every corner of the globe.

Within the country, displaced Kurds, Shi’ites and Marsh Arabs, suddenly freed of a fiercely controlling central government, are attempting to return to their long-lost homes — even if other families are now living there. Incidents of previous tenants or owners returning to claim their homes or land are anecdotal but rising, experts say.

The postwar chaos has created an unprecedented opening for “economic migration,” as those seeking to upgrade their living standards simply move into empty homes or kick out members of a marginalized group that may be unable to resist.

Yusuf, a Shi’ite engineer who has lived in one place for 31 years, was surprised when a neighbor he had never seen before offered to sell him another apartment in his own building.

“I said, ‘Do you own that apartment?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I do now, and you look like a nice man, so give me 1.5 million [dinar] and you can live there,’” said Yusuf, who declined the suspect offer.

Displaced millions

At least 1 million Iraqis have been displaced inside the country during the past two decades by hardship, conflict or forced relocation policies intended to favor groups friendly to Saddam’s regime, according to human rights and relief agencies.

Some estimate that the internally displaced number is as high as 3 million, although records are far from comprehensive.

Technically, people are not considered refugees unless they flee to another country, but “internally displaced people” have needs similar to those of people returning from abroad.

Take the Aziz family, for example.

The Azizes knew they would have to leave their home when, shortly after the fall of Baghdad, the landlord demanded two rent increases within a week. Ya’arab Aziz, a Palestinian, was no longer under the protection of Saddam’s regime.

With nowhere to go, the Azizes ended up in a sweltering canvas tent pitched on a soccer field in eastern Baghdad, surrounded by 226 other displaced Palestinian families.

Their new neighborhood is a dry landscape of steaming misery, with families — some with nine members — crammed into small tents in 114-degree heat.

Their belongings in storage, their lives on hold, the Palestinians are just the latest ethnic or religious group to be displaced by policies or providence in this fractious and tribal country.

“I paid my rent and drove my taxi and lived with my neighbors,” said Mr. Aziz, whose wife is an Iraqi Christian. “Now I am living here, and when I look ahead, I see nothing. It was unsafe to stay, but where can we go now?”

As many as 3,000 Palestinians — out of an estimated 80,000 — have been displaced in Iraq, a small but worrying sign of troubles to come.

The potential for chaos is particularly acute in the north, where Kurdish families have been uprooted by the war with Iran in the 1980s and attempts by the former regime to “Arabize” the oil-rich areas.

Orderly return

About 3 million to 4 million Iraqis — out of a population now numbering 23 million — have left the country during the past two decades, often winding up in refugee camps in Syria, Turkey or Iran; others fled to Europe, the United States, and other Arab countries.

Not all are considered refugees, nor will all try to return.

Mr. Bremer noted that the likely number of refugees and displaced civilians is “quite a lot smaller” than the 1 million calculated by UNHCR and other aid groups.

He said he had met with the high commissioner for refugees, Ruud Lubbers, and that they had agreed the Iraqis have a right to return “as soon as it can be done consistent with security in this country and with humane treatment of the refugees.”

UNHCR, meanwhile, warns that if Iraq’s refugees begin to return home before their security and economic viability and regional stability can be established, it could effectively superimpose one human rights crisis on another.

“What do you do when the refugees return from Iran and try to reclaim the land that had been the Marsh Arabs’, who would also like to return home?” asked Dennis McNamara, the senior UNHCR representative in Iraq.

“Those people will need assistance, but you cannot help them without improving the lives of those who already live there.”

Legacy of Arabization

In 1973, Saddam’s regime embarked on a program of “Arabization” intended to displace marginalized ethnic groups from prime farmland and oil-producing regions, and pack the areas with members of favored clans or tribes.

Kurds were evicted from the areas surrounding Mosul and Kirkuk, in an effort to loosen their claim on Iraq’s oil wealth.

The predominantly Shi’ite Marsh Arabs in the south were forced to leave once-fertile lands as water was diverted and their lowland farms turned into dusty salt bowls.

Other Shi’ites in the south and along the border with Iran were subject to persecution after their ill-fated uprising against the regime after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Tens of thousands fled across the border to refugee camps or host communities in Iran.

Many are ready to come home, now that Saddam is gone. The question is, are their old communities ready to receive them?

If, or when, many of these groups try to reclaim their homes, the conflicting land demands are going to be a nightmare for the U.S.-led occupation authority and the Iraqi leaders who will be forced to sort them out, refugee experts say.

“This is an enormous, complex, time-consuming issue,” Mr. McNamara said in an interview. “But if you don’t do it, and do it right, you’ll continue to have a terrible struggle. People will continue to occupy and reoccupy and reoccupy the same disputed areas.”

Unlike other countries with massive displacement of populations, the Iraqi central government kept reasonably complete real estate records.

But that will be of little use to coalition authorities now: A suspect fire last month in the Ministry of the Interior destroyed the archives of deeds dating to the 1960s.

U.S. advisers to the ministry fear that as many as half the records are gone forever.

Experienced refugee and repatriation experts say land records are often far from reliable when sorting out competing claims for homes and property.

Sometimes, they say, the best thing is simply to ask the neighbors. In other circumstances, the most effective plan is to leave the disputes to tribal sheiks, who have the respect of their communities and familiarity with recent history.

Sheik Sami, a leader of the Al-Bui’sa tribe in and around Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, said he was concerned about the potential return of refugees and the internally displaced, not just in his region but all across Iraq.

But he clearly has no appetite for the turmoil these homecomings could bring.

“I think that is best left to the Americans,” the elderly leader said. “I think they will have to decide what to do, and I will listen.”

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