Refugees Return to Baghdad

Joyous photos of Iraqi refugees returning to Baghdad in recent weeks have become something of a rallying cry for U.S. and Iraqi officials. Security is on such an upswing, leaders say, families are doing the once unthinkable: they're coming home. Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki credits a steep decline in car bombings, suicide attacks, and terrorist strikes for the inflow. "We were able, after eight months of imposing the law, to drive Baghdad from its dark, black days into a brighter time that people feel optimistic about."

Iraqi military commanders have been equally upbeat, estimating as many as 46,000 refugees returned nationwide in October 2007 alone. A Ministry of Displacement and Migration spokesman told CNN 10,000 of those were headed for Baghdad.

The return of families to a nation rocked by four-plus years of war is certainly cause for optimism. Baghdad residents are venturing out to markets and restaurants after dark, and a local television station has begun broadcasting clips of Baghdad nightlife, impossible just a few months ago.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad, eagerly declared on November 7 that the mass exodus has "largely come to a halt," adding there's "no question" people are coming home. Newsweek International correspondent Rod Nordland, a frequent visitor to Baghdad, notes that for the first time since the start of the war, conditions appear to be improving. Yet reasons for the homecomings are varied. Sunnis and Shiites alike report unease as they depart the relative safety of refugee settlements in neighboring countries for an uncertain future in Iraq .

One refugee, Ziad Qahtan Naeem, called his family's return to Baghdad a "death sentence" forced on him by the financial burden of two years spent displaced in Syria. Others say strict visa rules for Iraqis imposed by the government in Damascus—which harbors more than 1.2 million displaced Iraqis—have contributed to the returns.

Whatever the impetus, figures cited by international aid groups put the trickle of returnees into perspective. According to an October 2007 Iraqi Red Crescent Organization report, 2.3 million people were internally displaced in the country as of September, a 16 percent increase from the end of August. Most of the displaced were children under twelve living in Baghdad.

The United Nations refugee agency cites similarly distressing data. As of September 2007, an estimated 60,000 Iraqis were still being forced from their homes each month due to violence.

An additional 2.2 million Iraqis are displaced outside Iraq. The Iraqi government is providing an economic incentive to return: one million Iraqi dinars, or about $812, for each family, but few appear to be taking advantage .

United Nations officials don't blame them. Speaking in New York on November 13, the UN's Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees Erika Feller said it's far too dangerous to declare the displacement crisis over. "It's our sense that the security situation is still such that it's not able to sustain a return."

Nonetheless Iraqi and U.S. experts say glimmers of progress—from returning refugees to open markets to traffic jams—suggest, at the very least, Iraq is turning a corner. "All of this is the result of the most underreported successful military operation since the invention of the telegraph," opines Tony Blankley, a visiting senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, in the Washington Times.

CFR senior defense fellow Stephen Biddle adds that prospects for long-term stability are greater today than just a few months ago, largely because of the nearly held view U.S. troops are "going to be sticking around for years."

That perception, Biddle adds, is allowing for Iraq's political leaders to at least consider reconciliation, previously "the last thing they were interested in doing."