The Missing Returnees


Baghdad, March 24, 2007. The Baghdad Security Plan is going so well that Iraqis displaced by sectarian violence are flocking back to their homes in Baghdad, so a number of officials are telling us. The only problem with that: it's probably not true. General David Petraeus, in an interview with the BBC on March 18, said hundreds and even up to a thousand Iraqis had already returned, although he warned the plan is still in its early stages--a hopeful sign. On March 20, a Pentagon official, Major General Michael Barbero, gave a briefing in Washington during which that statistic morphed into hundreds of Iraqi families, which at a conservative multiplier of six to a family, bumps that number well above a thousand people. Meanwhile, Brig. General Qassim Atta al-Moussawi, the Iraqi spokesman for the Baghdad Security Plan, confidently asserted that 2,000 families had returned.

Good luck finding them all. Tufan Abdu-Wahab, head of the Baghdad section in the Ministry of Migration and Displaced People, said in an interview that only a handful of Iraqi families had returned, and most of those were Shias returning to Shia districts, rather than to formerly mixed communities. Officials have a pretty good handle on this, he said, because the government is offering a bounty of 250,000 dinars (about $192) to each family that returns to its home, and they also pay a small benefit to families who are displaced, so people both fleeing and returning have a big incentive to register. So as of the end of February, 35,000 families--210,000 people approximately--had registered as displaced, he said. Of those, Abdu-Wahab says that only about 1 percent have come back--which would be 350 families in the first month of the security plan--but many of those have only returned to check on their belongings and leave again. Meanwhile, families continue to flee at the rate of 25 a day, according to the ministry's registration statistics, easily outstripping any returns. "Before it was 350 families a day leaving, so that's a big improvement, but it's still a lot. People still don't feel secure," Abdu-Wahab said. And those statistics only provide minimum figures, because people who flee the country do not register, since they're not entitled to any payment from the government; those numbers only include those who remain inside Iraq. About 1.9 million Iraqis are internally displaced, according to U.N. statistics, and 2 million have become refugees, most of them in Jordan and Syria.

So where do these optimistic returnee figures come from? A spokesman for General Petraeus said he stands by his figure of up to a thousand Iraqis returning to their homes in Baghdad, and said it is based on reports from U.S. military units around the capital, and from Iraqi government sources. Moussawi said his figure comes from Iraqi police and army reports from around the capital.

Azhar al-Samuraie, a member of the Iraqi national assembly's committee for displaced and migration, and a Sunni, claims that the real number of displaced families is far higher than the registrations with the ministry of migration would indicate. "Attacks on people based on sectarian motives and deliberate displacement operations are still going on, despite the security plan, and the total number of displaced families is still increasing," he said. He estimated them at 162,000 families, or 972,000 people, as of this week--which he says is an increase from 94,000 families at the end of February. That's nearly a fifth of the capital's 5 million population; his figures may well be on the high side, although if you count people who have just changed their residence to live in a safer neighborhood, that could be within the realm of the possible.

So why aren't people returning if the security plan has made things safer? Sectarian killings have been way down compared to before the plan, but they still continue--five to 10 a day has been the average, compared to 60 a day before. But five to 10 may be all it takes to intimidate returnees--especially if some of those five to 10 are returnees. According to Abdu-Wahab, that indeed has been happening; he claimed "three or four" Sunni families who returned to the Shia-dominated neighborhood of Rasdiyah were killed the day they returned, although he was unable to provide details. Muhammed Faris, 34, an electrician who was displaced from the Aamil neighborhood, an area previously dominated by the Mahdi Army, said he was considering returning after he heard that Iraqi Army troops, Kurds from northern Iraq, had taken control of the area. The troops went around with loud hailers telling residents that returnees would be protected by force if necessary. So Faris called around to friends and former neighbors. One told him, he said, that "a 10-member family returned to their house and were received well by neighbors, but the next day a group of gunmen attacked them and killed them all, the only survivor was a suckling baby who got only a shot in his leg." And another neighbor went to Aamil just to collect his pay, was taken at a police checkpoint and then found killed a day later, he heard. And then his wife said she went there and saw a police truck full of dead bodies. Faris and family are still displaced. In Hurriyah, another formerly mixed neighborhood where Sunnis are being encouraged to return after a major Iraqi Army buildup--again, with Kurdish troops, who Sunnis feel safer around--the same sort of stories emerged. Um Suhad, a displaced Sunni teacher, said she called neighbors "who told me a father and his son were killed for sectarian reasons even with a recommendation of a religious man in the Sadr office there." She returned, but only to collect belongings and then leave again. "The situation is still dangerous and we have to be patient until it becomes more safe," she said. There's no way to verify such accounts, which may well be wildly exaggerated--but they're also widely believed, which is just as much a deterrent. And not without some foundation. Ministry of Interior officials reported that 25 bodies were discovered tortured, executed and dumped on the streets in the capital on Wednesday, the worst spike in sectarian killing since the plan began.

Baghdad is bisected by the Tigris River, running from north to south; west of the river, neighborhoods tend to become more heavily Sunni, until the outskirts in the west, in Anbar Province, are entirely Sunni. And east of the river, the huge Sadr City neighborhood has always been entirely Shia. There are important exceptions to that pattern, however; the city center just east of the river has always been mixed. Adhamiyah, the largest Sunni neighborhood, is east of the river. And Khadimiyah, one of the major Shia areas (and home to one of their leading religious pilgrimage sites), is west of the river. The Green Zone and much of the Shia-dominated government is on the west, as well. Already, though, many mixed neighborhoods on both sides of the river have started to re-sort themselves; reversing that will be a major challenge. Coalition forces are concentrating in those mixed neighborhoods in hopes of preserving them. "If the present situation goes on it will become west Baghad, Sunni, east Baghdad, Shia, like Beirut and its Green Line," said Abdu-Wahab. It will take a lot more than rosy pronunciamentos to make sure the Tigris doesn't end up as Baghdad's own Green Line.

-With Salih Mehdi in Baghdad

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