Monday, August 4, 2008

Displaced Iraqis Returning Slowly, Government Bureaucracy Might Be Slower

In mid-July 2008, the International Organization for Migration reported that the displacement of Iraqis had slowed, and that some were returning home. The group counted 2.8 million internal refugees in the country. It said that many of them can’t find housing, food, medical care, water, or services. While some families are going back to their homes, there is no reporting that this is anything but a small fraction of the total. What they find when they arrive is often local support, but no real government assistance.

The New York Times and Alsumaria TV had two stories about Iraqis returning to their homes last month. Alsumaria reported that approximately 150 families returned to the south Baghdad neighborhood of Dora in mid-July. It said that the effort was coordinated with the local Sons of Iraq (SOI). The area was once a stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq, but in 2007, local Sunnis began turning on it, eventually forming a Sons of Iraq unit with the assistance of the U.S. that mostly pushed the militants out. The American forces also erected a blast wall around the district to control the flow of traffic in and out as part of the Surge, and also spent a few million dollars on small reconstruction projects. Today, normalcy is beginning to return with businesses and foot traffic. What is missing is the government. Relative security has been established in Dora, but through the work of the U.S. and SOI, and that has allowed some families to go back to their homes. Baghdad has only argued with the SOIs there and little else. The New York Times reported on a similar story from the village of Al Etha in Diyala province. The town was the site of intense sectarian fighting in 2006, which forced out many of the Shiites after their homes were destroyed by Sunni fighters. In June 2008, around 60 families returned because they felt Iraqi forces had secured the area, the government offered food, money and a place to stay, and local Sunnis had offered a fig leaf. When they got there, they found that the government offered little to no assistance. In these two cases security has allowed a small fraction of displaced Iraqis to come home, but it is largely up to themselves and the locals to help them rebuild.

These incidents reflect badly upon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s newly launched campaign to bring back the country’s refugees and displaced. The main tactic is to offer cash to those that have had their houses damaged, or are returning. As the two examples of Dora and Al Etha point out, the government is still lagging to fulfill their promises. Refugees in Al Etha and other places have complained that the bureaucracy is either slow or non-existant in providing the money offered under Maliki’s plan. The amounts of aid have also been criticized as being too small. In Al Etha for example, the most the government could provide to the returning families was $5,000 a piece, which they said was only enough to clear the rubble from their destroyed homes, but not sufficient to rebuild them. Even the head of parliament’s Displaced and Migration committee said that Baghdad should not encourage people to return until it provides more aid. Providing services is the Achilles heel of Maliki’s government. It has consistently failed to spend most of its capital budgets, and doesn’t even exist in some areas of the country. Maliki’s refugee plan therefore, could be more rhetoric than actual action, as Baghdad lacks the capability to plan or carry out such a policy.

SOURCES

Alsumaria, “150 Iraqi families return to Al Dora region,” 7/12/08

Associated Press, “Group says displacement of Iraqis has slowed,” 7/18/08

O’Kane, Maggie and Black, Ian, “Sunni militia strike could derail US strategy against al-Qaida,” Guardian, 3/21/08

Pepper, Daniel, “Rebuilding a Baghdad Neighborhood,” Time, 1/14/08

Rubin, Alissa, “Iraqi Shiies Reclaim a Village Razed by Sunnis,” New York Times, 7/12/08

Voices of Iraq, “Lack of services, financial support make life difficult for returnees,” 7/31/08

Yanes, Deborah, “Al-Qaeda faces rebellion from the ranks,” Times of London, 7/23/07

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