Returning Iraqis face lack of services, property disputes

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 2, 2008 

BAGHDAD — Dr. Ahmed Farid heard it from his family and saw it with his own eyes: his old neighborhood in Baghdad is safer, maybe secure enough to move back from the city of Basra.

Since his family left the capital city in fall 2006, one of the most brutal periods since the war began, he's worked two medical jobs to cover rent and food. His children study in crumbling school buildings with 55 students to one teacher. Basra is close to his wife's family, but violence is boiling and Shiite Muslim power struggles continue.

Still, he won't return to Jihad, his Baghdad neighborhood, just yet. It's the place where he was a target for kidnappers, his daughter woke daily from panicked nightmares and he's not sure he can find a job.

"I think of going back," he said after visiting his old neighborhood during Eid ald Adha celebrations last month. "But I can't guarantee I will find the comfort, security and accommodations I have here."

Farid, like millions of other Iraqis who fled the bombs and ambushes in 2006 and 2007, is choosing between the rising costs of displacement and the painful memories of home. For 2008, those choices will become even more difficult as Iraqi officials work to woo them back to their neighborhoods, whether services and security are ready or not.

An estimated 2 million Iraqis are living in neighboring countries; another 2.4 million have fled their homes but remain scattered around Iraq. Former residents of Baghdad make up nearly 60 percent, according to estimates.

As violence dropped in the final months of 2007, thousands of people who'd fled their homes returned, especially in Baghdad. Statistics about how many have come home vary, but Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration estimated in early December that 30,000 had returned from other countries, along with 10,000 who'd gone home from other parts of Iraq.

That success also will be 2008's challenge, as uneasy peace and overtaxed services and utilities leave the country unprepared for mass returns.

Abdul Samad Rahman Sultan, Iraq's migration minister, said the government would need help from other countries and aid organizations to make it possible for people to return. He said the government hoped to resettle people in the neighborhoods they'd left.

"The focus will be on returning them to their original living places, or perhaps to other residences inside their old neighborhoods," he said.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that goal would be difficult to meet, and he predicted violence as homeowners and squatters battle over property. Petraeus warned that some people will have to resign themselves to never being able to reclaim their homes.

"That is not ideal, not right, not legal, not a lot of things, but it is reality," he said last week. "This is just going to remain a very, very tough issue for some time."

Coalition forces will offer some aid, but Petraeus said he didn't have ground forces capable of organizing returns, settling property debates and maintaining safety. Those solutions will have to come from Iraqis, he said.

Dana Graber Ladek, a displacement specialist in Iraq for the International Organization for Migration, said fewer people had left their homes in 2007 compared with 2006 as security improved and neighborhoods that used to have both Sunni and Shiite Muslim residents became more homogenous.

Iraqis also had fewer options to leave because of restrictions from nearby countries that couldn't handle droves of jobless refugees.

Ladek said that for those who didn't come home this year conditions would worsen as costs rose and savings dwindled.

Middle-class Iraqis — "teachers, doctors, nurses and shopkeepers" — who ran out of money are the biggest group of returnees, Staffan de Mistura, a United Nations envoy in Iraq, said in December, when he warned against a mass return.

The moves already have started in some neighborhoods, such as Khadhraa, a wealthy Sunni-majority district in western Baghdad. Iraqi national police Lt. Col. Raad Ismaeel said his unit had guided the return of about 150 families, including many Shiites. The only return-related violence so far involved a displaced Shiite family that wasn't originally from the neighborhood.

"Those who are returning are opening their arms to their neighbors. They were living in misery when they were displaced," Ismaeel said. "Imagine someone who owns a house in a high-class neighborhood paying rent and being displaced again and again. They were desperate to come back."

For all the improvements in Khadhraa — a 225-member citizen militia, a dozen checkpoints, newly paved roads, functioning telephone service — not everybody is convinced, Ismaeel said. So many people lost family members, property and jobs that they won't come back unless the government helps them start over and offers consistent water, electricity, food and — most importantly — security.

"I hope refugees will talk to people living here, be convinced to come back, even if there's no room and people have to stand on the bus," Ismaeel said. "No matter what, they will not want to leave again."

(Gumbrecht reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. McClatchy special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy and Hussein Khadim contributed to this report.)

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