BAGHDAD–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.
U.N. refugee officials immediately advised against the move, saying any new arrivals risked homelessness, unemployment and deprivation in a place still struggling to take care of the people already here. For the military, the prospect of refugees returning to reclaim houses long since occupied by others, particularly in Baghdad, threatened to destroy fragile security improvements.
â€œItâ€™s a problem that everybody can grasp,â€ said a senior U.S. diplomat here. â€œYou move back to the house that you left and find that somebody else has moved into the house, maybe because theyâ€™ve been displaced from someplace else. And itâ€™s even more difficult than that, because in many cases the local militias . . . have seized control and threw out anybody in that neighborhood they didnâ€™t like.â€
The vast population upheaval resulting from Iraqâ€™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.
Many have run out of money and options in Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries, all of which have recently intensified efforts to evict Iraqi refugees. Others have exhausted the patience and resources of family and friends. Lured by reports of security improvements and encouraged by a government eager to demonstrate normalcy, they have started to trickle back over the past two months.
The question of how to deal with them is posing a complex new challenge for Iraqâ€™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.
â€œItâ€™s very easy to say, â€˜Come home,â€™ â€œ said Guy Siri, the U.N. deputy humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. â€œBut come home where, and how? Itâ€™s much more complex than that. You have to look at the whole environment, how the community will accept them, whether itâ€™s economically viable. Thereâ€™s a whole lot of thinking on the government side to be done.â€
Kareem Sadi Haadi, 48, an engineer who now works in a shoe store in Baghdadâ€™s Karrada neighborhood, said he returned from Damascus last month with his wife and daughter only because his savings ran out and he was not allowed to work legally in Syria. He said he is trying to save enough money to flee Iraq again.
The Iraqi government should not be telling refugees that the country is secure or offering to ferry them back from Syria, Haadi said, adding, â€œThey are misleading Iraqis 100 percent. Eighty percent of those who want to come back is because of residency complications in Syria.â€
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.
U.S. military commanders and diplomats here acknowledge that the recent decline in violence is the result, in part, of the cityâ€™s segregation. There are now far fewer mixed neighborhoods where religious militias can target members of the other sect.
â€œThere is an element of the violence being down because segregation has already happened,â€ said Col. William E. Rapp, a senior aide to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. â€œThe violence is still at the fault lines, and weâ€™re sitting on those fault lines.â€
Rapp said Iraqis have to ask themselves: â€œDo you even want to come back? Because that neighborhood is no longer Sunni, itâ€™s now Shia. Or itâ€™s no longer Shia, itâ€™s now Sunni.â€
In most of Baghdad, the population shift has been at the expense of Sunnis, many of whose former neighborhoods are newly populated by poorer Shiite migrants under militia protection and, often, control. Groups such as Moqtada al-Sadrâ€™s Mahdi Army militia â€œare no longer just thugs who are carrying guns around on the street,â€ the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the issue. â€œTheyâ€™ve kind of supplanted local government, with streams of revenue — rent from housing theyâ€™ve taken over, protection money from businesses,â€ and control of fuel and electricity supplies.
Omar Qasim, 36, left Baghdadâ€™s Sidiya district with his wife and two sons for Damascus last December, after Shiite militias began moving into the neighborhood and fellow Sunnis began getting killed. Now, he said in a telephone interview from Syria, his car and furniture are gone and his house is occupied by a militia commander. â€œI wish to go back right now to my country,â€ he said, â€œbut the current calm in Baghdad is the calm before the storm.â€
The U.S. military command estimates that there are 350,000 displaced persons in Baghdad, 80 percent of them original residents of the capital who fled their neighborhoods primarily because of sectarian violence. The figure does not include those who have not come to official attention by registering a new address for monthly food rations.
â€œThis is a major issue thatâ€™s probably going to be resolved by new housing construction as opposed to wholesale evictions and resettlements,â€ Rapp said. â€œBut we have been asking, pleading with the government of Iraq to come up with a policy so that itâ€™s not put upon our battalion commanders and the [Iraqi] battalion commanders to figure it out on the ground.â€
After frantic foreign intervention, the Iraqi government agreed this month to temporarily suspend the offer of a bus trip from Syria.
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.
â€œPeople have papers. There should be a law. Houses cannot just be taken like that; people will not accept it,â€ Siri said.
The number of Iraqis returning under their own steam is still a relative trickle. The Iraqi Red Crescent estimates that 25,000 have come back from Syria since September, while the Iraqi government puts the combined total in recent months at 60,000 from Syria and Jordan, where the Iraqi refugee population totals about 700,000.
Recent surveys conducted by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees paint an increasingly dire picture of refugee life. In Syria, a third of Iraqi refugees said their resources will last for less than three more months. With new Syrian visa requirements and restrictions on services, nearly half said their children have dropped out of school.
â€œIf you are in Damascus,â€ Siri said, â€œyou are tempted to say, â€˜Many families [returned] last week; maybe itâ€™s time for us, as well.â€™ A snowball effect can be created.â€
The Iraqi government appears divided on whether to encourage the returns. The Damascus bus convoy was reportedly organized by the Ministry of Defense, although apparently it was not coordinated with the Transportation Ministry, which scrambled to find transportation into Iraq for the refugees when Syrian buses left them at the border and refused to travel farther.
While the convoys have been put on hold for the moment, state television has continued to run commercials advocating return. Iraqi officials in Damascus grumble that U.N. emergency relief for refugees there is keeping them from going home.
â€œThe government is basically doing this to restore confidence in themselves,â€ said Herve Richard-Thomas of the International Medical Corps, a U.S.-based relief organization working on humanitarian issues in Iraq. â€œItâ€™s partly because Baghdad is safer right now, but the biggest reason is so that they can look good and show that theyâ€™re doing something.â€
But the government ministry charged with caring for the returnees has been more cautious. â€œIn reality, the ministry cannot absorb a return on that scale,â€ Migration Minister Abdul-Samad Rahman said at a news conference this month. â€œIf the influx is huge, then neither the ministry nor the entire government can handle it.â€
Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan and special correspondent Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.