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Returning home to uncertainty

Some Iraqis, lured by calm and pledges of aid, are venturing back. But they know that trust will be hard to rebuild.

December 13, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

SABA AL BOR, IRAQ — A short woman with a worried look on her face walks down a dirt road toward her home, ignoring the throng of U.S. soldiers and fancily dressed dignitaries clogging the road.

They are here to trumpet the revival of this town northwest of Baghdad, which is witnessing the return of thousands of residents, among an estimated 4.2 million Iraqis who have fled sectarian violence in recent years. Ahlam Kareem is here to see what remains of her home, which she last saw 14 months ago.

Iraqi officials say tens of thousands of Iraqis are returning to their homes, drawn by improved security and financial aid packages offered by a government eager to bring its people back.

But the effort, which includes Iraqis returning from other countries and those who relocated within Iraq, is fraught with problems -- not least the specter of bombings such as the triple blasts that killed at least 41 people Wednesday in southern Iraq.

Some, like Kareem, a widow, are finding their homes looted, scorched and uninhabitable. Some, like Abu Ayad, a Shiite Muslim who brought his family back to the Sunni Muslim-dominated Ghazaliya neighborhood in Baghdad, are being driven out again by lingering sectarian tensions. In the latter case, neighbors say, someone tried to burn down his home days after the family's return.

Many, like Zaher Salman, who returned to Saba al Bor from Syria early last month, came because they could not afford the higher cost of living elsewhere, or because their visas had expired. Salman laments he has no way to earn a living because he was robbed on the highway from Syria and lost everything, including the car he used for his taxi business.

"I'm staying here because I don't have any money left," he said. "I hope it will stay safe."

People coming back are eligible for about 1 million Iraqi dinars, or roughly $800, and a monthly payout of about $120 for six months after their return.

But the country is struggling to revive schools, clinics and other essentials needed to care for a population traumatized by the past and edgy about the future.

So delicate is the situation that the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees issued a warning Nov. 23 about moving too quickly. The agency said it did not believe that Iraqi social services or security were adequate to handle the large-scale return of displaced people.

Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh played down such concerns. At a news conference late last month, he said nobody was being forced to come back and that the government was "doing its best" to protect those who did.

Determining how many people have returned is impossible, and skeptics accuse the government of exaggerating figures to make it appear that all is well in a still turbulent country. Dabbagh said that 60,000 people had returned from Syria alone in the last month. The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration says that since October, an additional 10,000 Iraqi families displaced within the country have registered or are in the process of registering for benefits to return to their hometowns.

The numbers are a small fraction of the estimated 4.2 million people international organizations say have been uprooted since the start of the war in 2003, but they are enough to worry high-ranking U.S. military officials.

Army Col. Bill Rapp, a senior aide to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of the U.S. mission in Iraq, said a concern to the military was how to handle the situation if returnees find squatters in their homes.

"The Iraqi government has not published a policy on what happens when your house is occupied by someone else," Rapp said. "They want these guys to come back, but they haven't yet figured out the mechanism for reestablishing people."

He said U.S. forces had been "pleading" with the Iraqi government to come up with a policy so that American troops aren't asked to sort out property disputes.

Saba al Bor offers myriad examples of the challenges of bringing Iraqis home.

Kareem, 55, reaches the end of the road, passes a small grove of trees and pushes open the broken metal door into her courtyard.

The once-comfortable house she shared with her two sons and their families is a shambles. The windowpanes are gone. The doors have been wrenched from their hinges. Dishes, lamps and anything else that could be broken lie in tiny pieces on the floor. Charred paint is peeling from the walls, ceiling and staircase. Only a refrigerator and a TV, shattered and partially melted from an arsonist's attempt to burn down the house, are evidence that a family once lived here.

"There is nothing left. It is a total loss," the Shiite woman said after her Nov. 17 visit to the house. "For now, I'm hopeless," she added, explaining that 1 million dinars was not nearly enough to make the place habitable.

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