- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

AL-BAYA, Iraq | Mustapha Eleiwi Jasem stood on the fringe of this village along the Diyala River and stared at the destruction. Nearby was a flattened clump of concrete - the remains of what once had been his home - and the flimsy, torn tent in which he and his family now live.

In the distance, in his mind’s eye, was the life the farmer hopes to reclaim.

With U.S. troops due to pull out of Iraqi cities in a week amid periodic spurts in terrorist attacks, Iraq faces the task of resettling hundreds of thousands of refugees in the neighborhoods they fled to escape sectarian attacks.

“We had to run away because of the violence in the area,” Mr. Jasem said. “Al Qaeda was killing people, and you could [also] get killed by government soldiers while in the field because they didn’t know who you were.

“We were strangers there,” in Baqouba, the provincial capital where Mr. Jasem and his family sought shelter for a year. “It was hard for us to live and work. Here we are home … it’s hard … things will get better.”

Until three months ago, Mr. Jasem, 49, was considered an internally displaced person (IDP), a term used by international aid groups because he remained in Iraq.

The Switzerland-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), an agency with 125 member states and offices in more than 100 countries, says about 1.6 million IDPs remain in Iraq.

The heaviest concentrations of IDPs are in Baghdad; Diyala province, just northeast of Baghdad; and Ninevah province, which includes the northwestern city of Mosul.

Many, if not most, fled their homes in 2006, when Sunni-Shi’ite violence drove the country to the brink of civil war.

Cities, towns and villages were torn apart by gunbattles, kidnappings and killings. Iraqi and U.S. military pushes against sectarian militias, insurgent groups and terrorist cells added to the number of refugees.

Security in the country as a whole, and in Diyala province, is far better today, allowing many refugees to return or make plans to do so.

Nearly 37 percent of returnees surveyed by the IOM cited improved security as the main reason for their decision to return to their homes. An additional 36.7 percent cited difficult conditions of life as a refugee in addition to the improved security.

In Diyala province — some parts of which are still very volatile — there were nearly 400 significant hostile acts from the beginning of January to the end of April, according to a U.S. military spokesman. That includes nearly 320 improvised explosive devices (IEDs), 180 of which were found and cleared before causing death or damage, according to the U.S. military.

In comparison, there were nearly 1,000 significant acts of violence in Diyala province during the corresponding period of 2008, said Maj. Derrick Chen, a public affairs officer with the 25th Infantry Division.

Iraq continues to suffer periodic spikes in violence, including a series of attacks that killed more than 100 people across the country this week. But Tuesday was relatively quiet, according to wire service reports.

In the al-Baya area of Diyala province, U.S. officers said that late last year, the number of IEDs planted averaged two or three a day.

“We haven’t had one down here in months,” one soldier said, on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Some of the 1.6 million internal refugees stay in a handful of camps across the country, but most have moved in with relatives or friends, rented a place to stay or simply squatted in homes left vacant by others.

The vast majority of IDPs intend to return home, the IOM says, and programs are in place to help them do so, but problems abound.

“Property restitution remains a complex issue for returnees,” the IOM said in a recent report. “There are currently several governmental and nongovernmental initiatives to assist in this process, but it is still a serious concern.

“In addition, in some cases, property restitution can have an unintended negative consequence. For example, approximately 700 houses occupied by IDPs in Dora, in the al Rashid district of Baghdad, have been evacuated in order to allow returnee families to reclaim their properties. However, the evicted families were mostly IDPs themselves, who subsequently became secondarily displaced.”

Mr. Jasem’s family and 14 others from al-Baya didn’t have to worry about squatters. Only a few buildings were still standing when they followed a village elder, Sheik Ghazi Hussein Abdullah al-Janabi, home earlier this year.

Sheik al-Janabi and U.S. soldiers said some homes not destroyed by al Qaeda were left so heavily booby-trapped that they had to be blown up to avoid casualties.

Al-Baya, once home to 30 families, is located in the south Buhriz area of Diyala province. It’s flanked on one side by the Diyala River, which irrigates its fields of eggplants, grapes and melons. Its palm groves provide dates for villagers to sell in Baghdad to the south or in Baqouba and Muqdadiyah to the north. Al-Baya’s fields currently have few crops.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Matthew Anderson, who operates in the area, said the villagers will have many of the problems faced by other IDPs in this rural area.

Returning residents came back too late to fully plant crops for the summer growing season, and just half of eight water pumps are working, he said. There’s no school for the children and no clinic for the sick. Potable water has to be trucked in every two weeks.

Electricity is available for about 11 hours daily, but at times, the current is so low a light bulb barely gives illumination.

Throughout Col. Anderson’s 850-square-mile area of responsibility, 612 families (with about six to eight members each) have resettled into about half of 100 villages since late last year, he said. “We have more that want to go home, but they’re waiting for water, electricity and compensation from the government.”

That compensation is on a sliding scale and is granted after a lengthy process during which displaced persons must produce documents to prove ownership of properties and show that the damage or destruction to the properties was a result of conflict.

Some potential returnees are holding out for that compensation before going home.

In the village of Chichon near the major market town of Muqdadiyah to the north, for example, more than half the village remains empty. U.S. troops in that area say the Chichons, descendants of 19th-century Chechen migrants, have been refusing to return until temporary shelters are erected by the provincial government.

Compensation payments to rebuild can be slow in coming. Col. Anderson said village leaders had validated the compensation papers three times and that everything was almost ready to go under the previous provincial government. But the province’s new government, elected in January, requires new validation, knocking the process back to square one.

For many of al-Baya’s people, waiting is not an option.

“It’s hard, because we have no money. But this is our land; these are our homes,” Sheik al-Janabi said. “A contractor we know loaned us tents, and soon he’ll loan us machines” to clear the rubble. “We can’t wait for the government. We’re doing what we can now.”

What that means is slowly clearing debris by hand, jury-rigging field pumps, shoring up the walls of buildings and collecting cinder blocks to erect new dwellings.

U.S. forces, impressed with the villagers’ efforts, are championing al-Baya, which they say can symbolize the new security in the area and send a self-help message to others.

“These people are very special,” said Capt. John Turner, of 2-8’s Alpha Battery. “These people have a work ethic. They aren’t waiting for people to do things for them.”

Capt. Turner assured Sheik al-Janabi of eventual government aid and offered help during a recent visit. Representatives from a U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), after speaking with the troops and surveying the village, will start their own paperwork to help rebuild the community.

“We’re impressed with what you are doing by yourselves,” a PRT representative told the sheik. He asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his work. “You say you’d like a school and a clinic. We’ll help you get them. Well help you any way we can.”

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