New York Times
November 30, 2007
By Michael R. Gordon and Stephen Farrell
BAGHDAD, Nov. 29 — As Iraqi refugees begin to stream back to Baghdad, American military officials say the Iraqi government has yet to develop a plan to absorb the influx and prevent it from setting off a new round of sectarian violence.
The Iraqi government lacks a mechanism to settle property disputes if former residents return to Baghdad only to find their homes occupied, the officials said. Nor has the Iraqi government come forward with a detailed plan to provide aid, shelter and other essential services to the thousands of Iraqis who might return. American commanders caution that if the return is not carefully managed, there is a risk of undermining the recent security gains.
“All these guys coming back are probably going to find somebody else living in their house,” said Col. William Rapp, a senior aide to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, speaking at a two-day military briefing on measuring military trends for a small group of American reporters in Baghdad.
“We have been asking, pleading with the government of Iraq, to come up with a policy so that it is not put upon our battalion commanders and the I.S.F. battalion commanders to figure it out on the ground,” he added, referring to the American and Iraqi security force commanders.
When sectarian violence soared in 2006, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria and Jordan, or moved to safer areas in Iraq. But now that the American troop reinforcement plan and a new counterinsurgency strategy have helped reverse a rising tide of car bombings and sectarian killings, there are signs that Iraqis are starting to return.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has hailed the development as an indication that security is beginning to improve. As if to underscore Mr. Maliki’s point, 375 Iraqi refugees arrived Thursday in a convoy of buses from Damascus, Syria, escorted by heavily armed policemen. After the lengthy journey, the tired Iraqis were ushered into the white marble affluence of the Mansour Melia Hotel in Baghdad to receive a promised government payout to people returning to the capital.
Many neighborhoods in Baghdad have become largely Shiite or Sunni, as one group drove the other out in calculated sectarian cleansing. Sunnis have moved into Shiite homes, and Shiites into Sunni ones. This segregation has contributed to the decline in violence. But what would happen if the original residents insisted on moving back into their homes?
Ahmad Chalabi, a Shiite politician and former Iraqi exile who made common cause with the Americans against Saddam Hussein, has been charged with developing a plan to provide services.
American officers discussed estimates of the displaced Iraqis at a seminar here on the military’s metrics of assessing violence in Iraq held at Camp Victory.
Recent American military data indicates that for the fourth week in a row, the nationwide weekly number of attacks is at its lowest level since January 2006. The number of civilians killed, as measured by the American and Iraqi governments, continued to decline in November. The number of weekly casualties, wounded as well as killed, suffered by Iraqi civilians, Iraqi forces and American forces, increased last week by 56 percent but was still below the level for most of 2006 and 2007.
The military also lowered its tally of how many Iraqis had joined neighborhood watch groups. The new figure for Concerned Local Citizens, as the military calls the volunteers, is 60,321. The previous estimate of 77,000 erroneously combined the number of volunteers who are currently serving with those who had expressed a willingness to join.
Col. Martin Stanton, who oversaw the count, said he told General Petraeus about the new figures this week.
Military officials said that they were seeking to make greater use of some Iraqi government data to provide a more comprehensive portrayal of the situation in Iraq. Though there are concerns about the reliability of some Iraqi reports, American military data generally understates Iraqi civilian deaths, since American units only report what they observe, officials said. At General Petraeus’s recommendation, the Pentagon is expected for the first time to include the Iraqi government data on civilian deaths in its report next month on security trends in Iraq.
While there is no question that large numbers of Iraqis have left their homes, American officials said that the exact number is not available. The International Organization for Migration has reported that the number of internally “displaced” Iraqis — those who have fled their homes but still live in Iraq — has grown to more than one million since the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. Among those displaced Iraqis, more than 350,000 live in Baghdad Province, according to estimates by humanitarian organizations.
Estimates by the Iraqi Red Crescent of the number of displaced Iraqis run much higher, but are marred by the double and triple counting of Iraqis who move from one area to another, American officials say. One difficulty in fixing an accurate count is that many displaced Iraqis do not register their migrant status with Iraqi authorities, American officials said.
In addition, more than two million Iraqis are also estimated to have left Iraq altogether for neighboring counties like Syria and Jordan and other nations.
Col. Cheryl L. Smart, who tracks the data on displaced Iraqis for General Petraeus’s command, said that the American military had been “very vocal” with the Iraqi government about the need to establish a system to adjudicate claims about property rights and to avoid using Iraqi troops to carry out “forced evictions.”
Colonel Rapp voiced the hope that confrontations might be avoided by building new homes for returning Iraqis instead of forcing all of the squatters to leave. “It is probably going to be resolved with new housing construction as opposed to wholesale evictions and resettlement,” he said.
“Whether they will remix is probably a multiyear, decade kind of issue,” he added, referring to the possibility of sectarian reintegration.
“The immediate return of I.D.P.’s will create tensions in that system, and we are concerned about it,” he said, referring to the internally displaced people in Iraq.
A senior Sunni official said that the government was not doing nearly enough. “There are many missing links,” said an Iraqi vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni. “We don’t have a comprehensive plan. We have a ministry of migration, but the problem is the bureaucracy.”
Speaking at his home in the Huriya neighborhood in northwest Baghdad, Mr. Chalabi said he was aware of the issue of returnees’ lingering fears. “I don’t think that people who have committed crimes or transgressions against their fellows in those areas would come back,” Mr. Chalabi said. “But the fear of, for example, the Sunnis here, is that the people who did the transgressions on the other side continue to be here and that they may threaten them.”
He said that he had put forward proposals for large-scale new housing developments, but that they should not be on a sectarian basis. “Baghdad is an integrated city and we should try to get it back to an integrated city,” he said.
Col. J. B. Burton, commander of the Second Brigade Combat Team of the First Infantry Division, which controlled northwest Baghdad until this month, said that some neighborhood leaders had made efforts to allow displaced Iraqis to return to their residences, but that their programs were hampered by the lack of a national plan.
“Displacement is a national issue,” Colonel Burton said Thursday in an e-mail exchange. “The government has got to establish policies which are not focused on sects.”
Most of the Iraqis who returned to the Mansour Melia Hotel on Thursday said they were returning voluntarily after hearing reports that the security situation had improved, but some said they had been forced to return because they had no jobs or money in Syria.
Some said their houses were long ago destroyed by Shiite militias or Sunni insurgents, or still occupied by people on the other side of the sectarian divide. Others said that it was still too unsafe to go back to areas like Dora, Jihad and Mansour, and that they would have to stay with relatives.
Abdul Kadim Mohammed, 58, a Shiite from Abu Ghraib, said he would be staying with relatives for now. “I feel more comfortable in Baghdad but still can’t go to Abu Ghraib, which is not completely good,” he said. “The next step that the government needs to work on is how to get back to our homes.” Reporting was contributed by Alissa J. Rubin, Damian Cave, Mudhafer al-Hussaini and Ahmad Fadam.