Violence Driving Iraqis From Homes, Country

With Isam Rashid

BAGHDAD – Tens of thousands have fled their homes or the country since the bombing of the Shia shrine in Samarra Feb. 23.

At least 30,000 Iraqis have been displaced from their homes since then, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) says.

The IOM, a leading international organization that works on migration issues closely with United Nations agencies, says the number of fleeing refugees is increasing as more people begin to feel unsettled by the violence. The IOM estimate is in line with that of Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration.

But this is only an official estimate. Many believe the number is far larger.

Iraqis have been fleeing their country for a long time. More than a million are believed to have left under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Under Saddam, Iraqis fled the country for economic as well as political reasons. Under the occupation now, the primary cause of migration appears to be a complete breakdown of security.

Iraqis have much to be worried about, from a lack of social services such as electricity and clean water to rampant crime plaguing Baghdad and Iraq as a whole.

So far, wealthy families have been leaving the country more than others. But since the Samarra bombing, many lower-income Iraqis have begun to change neighborhoods. Sunnis and Shias are moving to areas dominated by their own kind.

Iraqis fleeing the country have left mostly for Amman in Jordan. By official estimates, Amman now has more than half a million Iraqi refugees. Unofficial estimates put the number at one to two million.

"During the war we left Baghdad for Amman because there was such heavy bombardment of Baghdad," 35-year-old Sundus al-Mashdani told IPS. "When the war ended, we returned to our house in Baghdad, but we found U.S. troops there, and they refused to leave." Last year, Sundus returned to Amman with her three children.

Baghdad resident Osama Bahnam plans to leave. "I have been thinking about this for the last two years, but now I’m serious because of the killing between Sunni and Shia," he said. "We can’t sleep at night, we all worry, there’s killing every day, just because he is Sunni or because he is Shia."

"I have lived in Adhamiya in peace," Uday Dakhil, a Shia who lives in the Sunni Adhamiya neighborhood with his Sunni wife, told IPS. "I have many friends, and we never asked each other before if we are Sunni or Shia. One week ago, my Sunni friends asked me to leave Adhamiya for some days, because they are afraid for me."

Dakhil spoke of mysterious dangers. "There are many strange groups killing Shia people who live in Adhamiya, and they also do the same in Shia areas, killing Sunnis who live there."

Ammar Hussein, whose Sunni uncle was shot dead while out shopping in Shula, a predominantly Shia area of Baghdad, says the city is in the hands of militias.

"Many Sunni people get killed in my neighborhood, just because they are Sunni. Militias are in control of our area, and they work for sectarianism."

Dakhil says Iran is exerting undue influence over some of the militias and politicians in Iraq. This is a commonly held belief now.

Bahnam sees a game being played out in Iraq between Iran and the United States. "The Iraqi government allows some parties to set up militias, and some of these help Iran to create these tensions between Sunni and Shia," he said. "They want U.S. troops to be busy in Iraq, because when Iraq becomes quiet, U.S. troops will invade Iran."

Amid such tension and violence, many Iraqis still hope that calm will return, and that many who fled the country will come back.

Sundus says Jordan is safe, but her heart is in Iraq. "I hope my country will be safe soon, and all of the Iraqis will come back to Iraq."

Bahman speaks of his unease at the thought of leaving. "I feel shame when I say I will leave Iraq in this situation, but what can I do? Every day murder, arrests without reason, people disappear because of kidnapping, and there is no hope to end this problem in the near future."

Iraqis have begun to feel defenseless."The U.S. troops allow the militias to carry guns, but they didn’t allow us to do that," Ammar Hussein said. "The occupation is responsible first for the sectarianism, and then the militias."