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One More Cruel Hoax

Iraqi Refugees Return

by JOHN ROSS

With the first presidential primaries on the U.S. doorstep January 3rd, the usual unholy alliance of Bushites, Democrats, and Big Media are doing their damndest to skam a skeptical electorate into swallowing the lie that the surge has worked, the drawdown has begun, and the war in Iraq is just about over. Security is so improved in Baghdad thanks to the Bush-Petraeus putsch that New York Times reporters can walk certain streets without armed escort. Even the refugees, driven off by unspeakable violence, are returning to Baghdad in droves.

This myth is being perpetrated by the likes of Fox News and CNN. A four-column full-color photo on the front page of the New York Times November 20th of a gala Baghdad wedding party was accompanied inside by a shot of smiling adolescents playing fussball and a banner headline "BAGHDAD EXHALES AS SECURITY IMPROVES."

The U.S. military affirms that insurgent activity is at its lowest level since the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Dome in Samarrah that set off sectarian bloodshed. Yet more U.S. troops have lost their lives in 2007 than in any other year of this brutal war precisely because of Bush’s surge.

All this happy talk gets Bush and the Republicans off the hook for an overwhelmingly unpopular war just in time for the U.S. presidential election season. It also means that the Democrats won’t have to defend their half-hearted call for withdrawal and risk being tarred as traitors on the 24 House news cycle. Indeed, the purported calm that has returned to the streets of Baghdad is mostly a photo op touted by Bush’s Big Media collaborators that defuses the war as a campaign issue.

The truth of the matter is that the much-hyped success of the surge and the return of the refugees is as big a bosh as Bush’s WMDs. The streets of Baghdad and Mosul remain deadly killing grounds and the refugees are being manipulated like pawns in a political bunko game to get a U.S. president elected. Moreover, the myth of their return is a cruel hoax that could shred them of the legitimacy of sanctuary.

The campaign to foist these lies on the U.S. electorate began congruently enough just a few hours into this past November election day. On November 7th, the Washington Post reported on a Baghdad press conference by the U.S.-Iraqi Joint Pacification Command at which General Quassin al-Moussawi insisted the city had grown so safe that over 46,000 refugees had returned in October. Moussawi was seconded by his U.S. counterpart Major General Joseph Fils: "there is no question that families are returning to Baghdad." The next day, New York Times correspondent Damien Cave met with General Fils over egg rolls in the Green Zone and later wrote "by all accounts, Iraq families who fled their homes in the past two yeas are returning to Baghdad."

Then on November 12th, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki announced that 7000 families had already returned to Baghdad thanks to the good offices of Bush’s surge and invited the millions of Iraqis still displaced by the carnage to come home. A spokesperson for the Displacement Ministry backed up the Prime Minister, estimating that 1600 families a day had returned from internal and external exile during October, many of them on free buses the Iraqi puppet government had sent to Damascus to transport refugees home.

Days later, even Cave had to concede the numbers were bogus. General Moussawi’s 46,000 seems to represent all Iraqi citizens crossing the borders from Syria and Jordan during October 2007 and included returning vacationers, business travelers, religious pilgrims, and exiles temporarily returning to retrieve money or for medical care or to bury a relative – in addition to a few refugees going home for good. Even foreign fighters and three insurgents who had fled to Syria and were arrested in Baqouba days later are thought to be in the mix.

The 1600 families who had reportedly returned daily during October were more like 50, a representative of the bus line chartered by the Maliki government to bring them home, told Cave. Once more, thousands were still fleeing Baghdad – more than were returning according to a bulletin issued by the Iraqi Red Crescent. Those on the run were mostly being forced into internal displacement – traffic between Baghdad and Damascus has been greatly diminished because the Syrian government is no longer issuing temporary visas to Iraqis seeking sanctuary. In fact, some of the would-be refugees being turned back at the border may have been counted into Moussawi’s numbers.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) counts 4.2 million displaced Iraqis, 2.2 million internally displaced and the rest dispersed in neighboring countries, the largest forced displacement in the Arab world since the Palestinian exodus of 1948. The Middle East now accounts for half the world’s refugees – according to the Swiss-based International Organization on Migration (IOM), the Iraqi diaspora has been responsible for a 14% spike in the number of refugees worldwide. Yet the world has been slow to recognize the crisis and the Iraqi displacement doesn’t have the visibility that the Darfur Crusade, bankrolled by Hollywood moguls, has had.

The internally displaced are the most vulnerable. Herded into ragtag desert camps where violence and disease are epidemic, they face a harsh winter with little resource – UNHCR calculates that half the refugees are children. Some, having been refused residency by 11 out of Iraq’s 18 provincial governments, have taken up Maliki’s offer of a million dinars ($800 USD) and are returning to Baghdad but nowhere in the numbers that Maliki claims. According to the displacement ministry, only 4300 families, 25,000 Iraqis, have availed themselves of the stipend. UNHCR tallies indicate that 28,000 Iraqis, 3000 more than returned, left Baghdad in October.

A third of the returnees return to find someone else living in their homes, Dana Ladek of the IOM told the Times. Because many Sunna have lost their homes to Shiia families, the housing of returnees has the potential for amping up sectarian confrontation. Ominously, the Maliki government has charged former CIA asset and convicted embezzler Ahmad Chalabi, a wily veteran of Iraqi’s bruising political wars (U.S. troops once stormed his mansion) with resolving the returnees’ housing crisis.

An estimated 2,000,000 Iraqis have escaped across the country’s borders since the war began in March 2003 – 1.2 to 1.5 million to Syria; 750,000 to Jordan; and several hundred thousand more to the Gulf states and Arab capitals like Cairo and Beirut – although the threat of renewed civil war is reportedly driving Lebanese into the refugee flow, further impacting the refugee crisis in the Middle East. 20,000 Iraqi Christians have been granted sanctuary in Sweden but a jittery Europe is reluctant to admit more Muslims.

The U.S., with 65,000 Iraqi collaborators in harm’s way, has been notoriously lackadaisical about admitting refugees – only 466 were granted residency through fiscal 2005-6 with another 1608 added in fiscal 2006-7. Although 12,000 visas are supposed to be issued in the current fiscal year, the October quota was only 450, less than half of the projected monthly goal. Washington blames Syria for the delay because it has refused to allow Homeland Security to screen applicants in Damascus.

For 2,000,000 Iraqis in external exile, life is uneasy. Their presence puts pressures on the cities and countries where they seek sanctuary, exacerbating already debilitated infrastructure and precious resources like water, driving up housing prices and driving down wages, and their welcome has often been a hostile one. In Jordan, where the authorities fret that terrorist acts like the 2005 bombings at three luxury hotels that took 57 lives could spread across the border, the refugees are regarded with suspicion. Iraqi children were not allowed to enroll in school until this year. Work permits are virtually impossible to obtain and Iraqi workers are unscrupulously exploited in the underground job market.

Deportation is an incessant threat. Much like undocumented Mexican workers in the U.S., the refugees live in the shadows fearing that they will be swept up and sent home. Like Mexican workers in the U.S., deportations often split families and women are left alone to raise children in a strange land.

Given the difficulties and disappointments of exile, some refugees have packed up and gone back – but they are driven by desperation rather than the false promises of improved security in Baghdad, one Iraqi activist in Amman affirms. An UNHCR survey of 110 Iraqis returning from Syria in October found that most were on the bus because they had run out of money or the stress of making a living had grown too onerous or simply because their visas had expired. "This is not the time to promote, organize, or encourage return," UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Paconis told a Damascus press conference. "There is no sign of large scale repatriation as the security situation remains volatile in many parts of Iraq."

The stories that Sasha Crow and Mary Madsen, the founders of the Pacific Northwest-based Collateral Repair Project, have been hearing as they trudge the sewage-strewn back streets of Amman, are heartbreaking. But despite the hardships they face, few families will be going home soon.

Some are longtime refugees driven from their homeland by Saddam and the U.S.-U.N. sanctions – there were already a million refugees when the war began. Some are double refugees like the Palestinians expelled from Iraq and now camped out at al-Rahwead on the Jordanian border. Most are more recent arrivals who fled Iraq after the Golden Dome bombing triggered sectarian slaughter in 2006. Many still tremble when they recount the terror they lived – Bush’s shock & awe show that still causes refugee children to scream when they hear an airplane, the headless bodies in the streets of Baghdad, the murder of a parent or spouse. Many seem to suffer post-traumatic stress but there are few doctors to diagnosis it.

Some have thought it was safe to go back and met with tragedy. Um Saif’s husband, an employee of the Iraqi foreign ministry forced to flee after Bremmer’s De-Baathization order, returned to Baghdad to treat his ailing heart and was shot dead by political enemies, his body tossed out near the city morgue. "Saleena" (not her real name), a refugee activist, reports that a teenager, one of the first returnees, was found stabbed 16 time.

The rumor of the Baghdad killing of 11 members of refugee journalist Diha al-Kawaz’s family electrified Iraqi exiles in Amman even if the rumor proved untrue. The November 23rd bombing at the al-Ghazzi pet market in Baghdad, a showcase for the new security in that ravaged city, put the lie to Maliki’s promises and is not a good sign for the return business.

"I want only to go to my home," Meha, the 14 year-old daughter of an Iraqi agrarian engineer who now sells pickles on the streets of Amman to make ends meet (thanks to a Collateral Repair micro-loan) told Sasha and Mary. When asked what she would like to say to U.S. teenagers, Meha was candid: America must leave her country. Then she can go home.

All refugees everywhere dream of going home. Return is an unshakeable obsession that permeates every waking moment and is dreamt about every night. But above all, Iraqis want to go home to a country and a city that is safe like Baghdad was before the U.S. invasion and occupation, before the car bombings and kidnappings and sectarian bloodletting, when there was no ten hour wait for gasoline and you could drink the water and there was electricity all day and the wedding parties erupted joyously on the downtown streets every Thursday at dusk.

One morning near Farduz Square, I watched the owner of a nearby candy shop singing happily to himself as he stacked his shelves with sweets for the coming holidays. Chattering birds were in the trees and the tea wagons were doing a brisk business. Men and women in pairs strolled the streets in safety and peace. That was in March 2003, ten days before Bush launched his genocidal war on the Iraqi people and forced millions of refugees into exile.

Read Sasha and Mary’s reports from Amman at www.collateralrepairproject.org.

JOHN ROSS is looking at Mexico through his fake eye. If you have further information write johnross@igc.org