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Archive for Friday, March 9, 2007

Iraqi government urges displaced to return home

March 9, 2007

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— Every few days, an Iraqi army officer with a thick mustache and a black beret goes on television to deliver a battery of statistics intended to demonstrate the government's progress in bringing security to the country.

In addition to the numbers of insurgents killed and captured, bombs discovered and defused, Brig. Qasim al-Mousawi gives a running tally of Iraqis, once driven from their houses by sectarian violence, who have decided to return home. The Iraqi government has made resettlement a central objective of its 3-week-old Baghdad security plan and says more than 1,000 families have returned to their homes so far.

But ground-level American and Iraqi officials charged with implementing the policy warn that encouraging resettlement is perilous at a time when bombings regularly rock the capital and sectarian violence remains a grave threat in most neighborhoods. Many Baghdad residents who fled, fearing for their lives, say they have no intention of returning home soon. And despite the government's assertions that families are streaming back to neighborhoods in and around Baghdad such as Medaen, Shaab and Abu Ghraib, there is no evidence of any widespread resettlement in the capital.

Needing assistance

"Until now, not a single person has come here saying they wanted to return home," said Tofan Abdul Wahab, the manager of an eastern Baghdad branch office of the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, the agency tasked with coordinating services for displaced families. "As an official, I cannot encourage people to return unless there is some security."

In the courtyard outside his office, dozens of people crowded in front of six broken windows, handing clerks documents to prove they had fled their homes and needed assistance. A former resident of Medaen, Ali Hussein Saeed, 47, held a worn letter he received Feb. 2, 2006, three weeks before the country's sectarian war exploded with the destruction of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

"We have come to learn that you are supporting the Mahdi Army, who are killing Sunni people," the letter began. It ended: "All the Shia in Medaen are going to be killed."

Twelve days before the letter arrived, Saeed's 18-year-old son, Akheel, had been shot and killed on his way to the market. Saeed, who is unemployed, and his wife and four other sons fled without their furniture to the Shiite slum of Sadr City, where they live together in one small room.

Government paying

To encourage people such as Saeed to return home, the government is offering payments of nearly $200 to help with moving expenses, and officials say that figure may rise to $750 per family, a significant sum for many impoverished Baghdad residents.

"If they gave me millions, I would not go back," Saeed said. "How could I go back? The whole area is insurgency. Even if you do return to your house, will the government be able to stay there 24 hours a day to protect you?"

Iraqi politicians appear to agree that the Balkanization of Baghdad into Sunni and Shiite enclaves must be reversed and that people eventually should return to their homes. But some insist that process should not be rushed.

"A lot of officials are trying to push it forward, to move people back, because if they did, then it would be seen as accomplishing a big part of the national reconciliation," said another Iraqi official at the Ministry of Displacement and Migration. "But I think it's a very dangerous, reckless step."

"Due to their actions, people are getting killed," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, a U.S. military battalion commander in charge of a 20-square-mile swath of western Baghdad, told his command staff recently that they should not encourage Iraqis to return home.

"We're not going to get into the repopulation. That is a political problem," Kuehl said. "When people call, what we need to tell them is it is not safe to resettle. That is my line right now. It is not safe."

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