Saturday, April 21, 2007

ROGER COHEN: Iraqi Refugee Problem Starts Drawing Response


Almost 60 years ago, during the war of Israel's modern-day creation, Palestinian refugees began fleeing their homes, igniting tensions that still fester. The danger now exists that another Middle Eastern refugee problem of similar dimensions will result from America's attempt to create a new Iraq.

Such a scenario, involving millions of displaced Iraqis thrust from a re-engineered country, would add another layer of difficulty and another potential repository of radicalism to the already many-layered Middle Eastern morass that constitutes the world's most dangerous problem.

Already, about 2 million Iraqis have fled their country, mainly to neighboring Syria and Jordan, and 1.9 million have been displaced within Iraq. Some of these people, particularly those still in Iraq, fled their homes during Saddam Hussein's cycles of terror. The cumulative result of despotism and the violence stemming from the 2003 U.S. invasion has been devastating.

But "an unintended global conspiracy hid the facts for a long time," António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in an interview.

America did not want to acknowledge a flight that suggested failure. The new Iraqi authorities were reticent for similar reasons. Europeans thought this was not their problem; they had been against the war. Arab states thought it was a problem too reminiscent of the Palestinian disaster.

So Iraqis found themselves in increasingly agonizing limbo, sitting in Damascus or Amman, their country in flames, their old passports canceled, their access to new travel documents cut, their homes disappearing behind Iraq's new sectarian barriers.

This limbo persists. But the first months of this year have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity that has brought recognition of the scale of the problem. Guterres was in Baghdad in late March, in Damascus the month before, and this week chaired a 60-nation UNHCR conference on the Iraqis' plight.

Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, told the conference: "Iraq seeks the return of Iraqi citizens who have had to leave their homeland." But he added: "More and more people are fleeing daily, especially academics, doctors, scientists, engineers, civil servants and businessmen."

The danger is clear enough, for it has a Palestinian precedent: an Iraq inhabited by a rump and radicalized population, its elite in a permanent diaspora, and the best hope of rebuilding snuffed out with that scattered intelligentsia.

The Iraqi commitment to bringing refugees home is significant if untested. A Shiite-dominated government might have welcomed Sunni flight. But in fact, Guterres said, the refugees are Sunni and Shia in roughly equal number, although the proportion of Sunnis who have fled is higher.

"We need to help the communities in Syria and Jordan and at the same time keep up the hope of return for everyone," Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, said. "Without hope, a dangerous despair sets in."

Asked if another Palestinian-scale problem loomed, Guterres said: "We don't have the structural complication of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I don't see any reason for the crisis to take 60 years to resolve."

But he added: "It is the quality of the displacement that troubles me, the re-engineering of Iraqi society, the way the Shias are moving into Shia-dominated areas and Sunnis into Sunni-dominated areas. That makes return more problematic."

Referring to population shifts stemming from the 1990s Balkan wars, he continued: "How many Serbs returned to the Krajina or eastern Slavonia? The area was re-engineered. We have to create the conditions in Iraq where these movements do not become irreversible."

With each targeted sectarian killing, however, the religious and ethnic divisions that hardened with the bombing of the Shiite shrine of Samarra in February 2006 become more difficult to unravel.

Democracy, imported by America, thrust the long-repressed Shiite majority to the power Sunnis had long held. The vote equaled social revolution. Every revolution contains its mother lode of violence, but the Bush administration was unprepared.

And here we are, with the United States, prodded by Guterres, at last beginning to respond to a refugee crisis for which its responsibility appears evident.

Washington has contributed about a third of the $60 million raised by the UNHCR to help Iraqi refugees. It has promised to resettle this year several thousand of those in flight, turning the trickle of Iraqis into the United States (a few hundred) into something more.

"We expect to be able to register about 20,000 Iraqis for resettlement this year," Guterres said. "And in our opinion, the United States will pick up the clear majority. But resettlement is a complex process."

So is averting the worst in Syria and Jordan, neither of which is a signatory of the 1951 UN convention on refugees.

The Syrians have spent $200 million on the 1.2 million Iraqis now in the country over the past two years; they expect to spend another $256 million over the next two. The arrival of 750,000 Iraqis in Jordan has put immense strains on a small country with pressing security concerns. In both countries, the Palestinian refugee experience haunts the authorities.

"For us, they are refugees, but for Syria and Jordan the Iraqis are guests," Guterres said. "The main reason is the Palestinian question; they don't want to suggest this problem will be the same."

Still, the high commissioner praised both countries, particularly Syria, for their generous response to the crisis, and said volatile pressures to send the Iraqis back or close borders were generally under control. Rumors of eviction have been rife among refugee Iraqis, especially in Jordan, fueling unease.

Rumor feeds and reflects a rampant disorientation. A small subplot of the exodus from Iraq suggests what is at stake. Several thousand Palestinians who once lived in Baghdad, including about 1,300 stranded in no man's land at the border, are among the new refugees from Iraq.

Israel does not want to let them into the West Bank or Gaza. Syria and Jordan say they have enough Palestinians already. No other Arab states want them. "It's the most tragic situation," Guterres said.

It is also a terrible potential portent for Iraqis.

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