Al-Qaeda in Iraq blows up houses to keep refugees from returning

story in U.S. News and World Report by Alex Kingsbury tells about a tactic al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is using to discourage refugees from returning home. (The headline, but not the writer, refers to AQI as “insurgents,” a description I don’t like as it implies these terrorists are local people, which most of them are not.)

NAQUIB, Iraq—Flying several hundred feet over the Diyala River basin in eastern Iraq, it’s not difficult to see why one government leader here calls it a disaster area. Shattered remains of houses dot the landscape, both over the brown and dusty desert areas and the lush, green river basins that have earned this area the title “breadbasket of Iraq.”

The destroyed homes are the result of one of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s latest strategies—converting homes into bombs, or “house-borne improvised explosive devices,” as they’ve been dubbed. It’s a tactic particular to this province, which is a combustible mix of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish residents.

AQI has destroyed some 60 houses in the last year and they continue to do so. The central government representative in the province

explains that the families need to return soon to harvest the local date groves. IEDs buried in the groves have understandably kept many farmers out.

Like many areas of Iraq, this one has local reconciliation committees that have taken responsibility for their own security. They have developed a plan.

In response to the dozens of households moving back to the area, local Iraqi reconciliation committees have devised a new strategy. Iraqi and coalition teams will de-mine the areas where fighting has taken place so that residents can return. Then, some of the sons from returning families will be hired as security guards, with a guaranteed paycheck for several months. This has the dual impact of employing returning residents and making the area more difficult for AQI to re-establish itself.

“The area is in decay because of all the fighting and it clearly needs help. The issue is creating lasting solutions,” says Col. Burt Thompson, who commands the 25th Infantry Division’s 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, and the U.S. commander with responsibility for all of Diyala province. “What’s encouraging here is that Iraqis are moving to clear these areas of explosives left by AQI, and they are moving to find their own ways to get residents to return.”

Note that the Iraqis still need the coalition to help them. If we leave Iraq quickly, as Barack Obama intends, this area like many others will be left to the mercy of AQI, which is well funded from outside Iraq.

The article does not say whether the families returning are internally displaced or had gone to neighboring countries. I wish we knew that. Also, we don’t know how the returning families will be housed.

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