The Iraqi refugee question The country's future depends on the fate of those who fled earlier sectarian violence.

Posted: March 11, 2010

Even though Iraq's election is over, the vote was so divided among political coalitions that it may be weeks before a new government is formed. However, we do know that the parties that claimed to rise above sectarian divisions did well - most notably Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Rule of Law alliance. This indicates that many Iraqis are eager to move beyond the bloody divisiveness of past years.

We don't yet know, however, whether Iraqi politicians will heed the voters' message. Maliki, a Shiite who declared himself a leader for all Iraqis, acquiesced in the dubious banning of many Sunni candidates at the last minute.

But there is one move the next prime minister could make that would signal a desire to reunify the country: speeding the return of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled the violence, of whom around 60 percent are Sunnis and 15 percent are Christians. Most are living precariously in neighboring Arab countries, afraid to go home.

Why is their return so important? "If they're not welcome back, there is an identity problem for Iraq and the region," said veteran NPR correspondent Deborah Amos, the author of a fascinating new book that focuses on the Iraqi refugee problem, Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East.

"The refugees are the canary in the coal mine," Amos said, a sign of whether Iraq is ready to move beyond sectarian strife. Their fate will indicate whether it has become a Shiite-dominated state in which Sunnis aren't truly welcome, or a state in which all Iraqis have a role.

No one is certain how many Iraqis fled the country at the height of the sectarian violence. Syria claims to be hosting more than one million; Jordan, 800,000. According to Elizabeth Campbell of Refugees International, the real number is probably lower, about 350,000 longterm refugees in Syria and fewer than 100,000 in Jordan. (After much foot-dragging, the United States has granted asylum to around 36,000 Iraqis since 2007, mostly those endangered because they'd worked for U.S. officials or journalists.)

These figures include huge numbers of educated Iraqis - teachers, professors, doctors, artists, vital bureaucrats, and other professionals - who fear they have no future because they are Sunni or Christian. Amos, who spent months interviewing Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, says most recognize that Iraq will never revert to the days when the minority Sunnis controlled the country and the majority Shiites were repressed. Only a small minority of the exiles are wealthy Baathists from Saddam Hussein's circle who dream of restoring those times.

But, said Amos, before middle-class Sunnis will return, they "need to know that they can work and go to college" in a country where most jobs depend on the state. Most refugees have given up on returning to their old homes in Baghdad neighborhoods that were "cleansed" of Sunnis by Shiite militias, "but they want to know whether they can still fit into Iraqi society."

Moreover, Sunni Arab countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Arab states, Egypt, and Jordan, are watching to see whether newly powerful Iraqi Shiite politicians will exclude Sunnis from a meaningful role in their country. The refugees' fate will reveal Shiite politicians' view of the Sunnis' future role in Iraq.

So far, the indicators aren't promising. Shiite politicians, ever fearful of a Baathist revival, have been unsympathetic; Maliki has routinely called the exiles "cowards" and "traitors". The oil-rich Iraqi government has provided almost no funds to support Iraqi citizens who fled, apart from one transfer of $25 million to Jordan and Syria. Nor has any Iraqi money gone to fund the refugees' return, save for a halfhearted, sporadic program of transport and promised cash payments, which, according to a U.N. survey, were paid out only 10 percent of the time.

Many of the refugees have fallen into near-destitution, since they aren't permitted to work in Syria or Jordan. Many refugees are forced to send their children to work, and some desperate women have even turned to prostitution. Impoverished and without hope, this population will provide a perfect recruiting ground for jihadi groups.

Iraq cannot afford to squander the talents of this middle-class population, nor to exclude peaceful Sunnis from a role in the country. The next prime minister will have a fresh chance to promote a policy on refugees that sends a hopeful signal about Iraq's future. He should listen to voters who want to unify Iraq, and help the refugees return home.

Trudy Rubin can be contacted at trubin@phillynews.com.

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