Iraqi refugees to vote in upcoming elections. Will they return?

It’s been hard to get information on the Iraqi refugees who fled to surrounding countries during the sectarian violence. Since George W. Bush left office, the media don’t seem to care about them. Now there’s a helpful and interesting report in Slate, of all places, titled Will the Exiles Return to Iraq? It is written by Deborah Amos and the subhead is “Sunday’s election is a test of the permanence of the division between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites.” It begins:

As Iraqis prepare for parliamentary elections on March 7, election fever has been rising in a seemingly unlikely place: Damascus, Syria. Syria is a haven for the largest community of Iraqi exiles, and many of them say they will cast their ballots far from home.

“Yes, I will vote,” Omar Fadhil insisted when I met him in his shabby apartment in Damascus. A Sunni Arab, he fled to Syria last year after closing his music shop in Baghdad when militants threatened to blow it up. “Those in Iraq don’t represent the real Iraqis, the artists and the scholars,” he maintained. The overwhelming majority of exiles in Syria, more than 70 percent, are professionals and technocrats from Baghdad.

Under a new election law, the externally displaced have voting power, because their vote counts as if they were living in their home province. Voter registration began this week; an Iraqi passport counts as proof of citizenship, but so does a U.N. refugee registration card. Iraq’s electoral commission expects as many as 180,000 exiles to cast ballots in 23 voting centers across Syria, and Iraq’s Sunni politicians are courting the exile vote.

According to the article, about 60 percent of the refugees are Sunnis and 15 percent Christian.  They fled when the majority Shiites took vengeance after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Saddam’s Baath Party was Sunni, though this sect is a minority in Iraq.  America’s military surge and accompanying pacification policy was aimed at ending the sectarian violence. So the issue for the Sunni refugees in the election is whether they will be welcomed back as fellow Iraqis, or face the prospect of continued terrorizing if they return. According to the article, the prospect doesn’t look all that good.

A year ago, in the provincial elections, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition won a majority on a nationalist agenda, campaigning on the themes of Iraqi unity, good governance, and improved services. At the time, Maliki courted Sunni politicians as well as Sunni votes, and his success seemed to indicate that the sectarian divide was closing, if not healing. Iraqi exiles, especially in the Sunni community, noted the change and, as a result, the exiles became more transient: One member of the family would be sent back to Baghdad to collect pensions, back pay, or to work for a few months to support the extended family exiled in Syria. These were the scouts for a larger movement home. But sectarian tensions are on the rise again as Shiite politicians stir populist fears of the return of the outlawed Baath Party that ruled the country in Saddam’s day.

 Whether the Iraqis overcome their sectarian hostility is really the key question for Iraq’s future. So we will wait for the results of the elections, and hope they will vote as Iraqis rather than Sunnis and Shiites.

The tone of this report is remarkably different from the pieces that used to appear. It’s taken a long time for media opinion to come around to the fact that the Iraqi refugees need to go home, rather than settle by the millions in western countries, or whatever cockamamie idea they were pushing. This piece pretty much takes it for granted, and concludes that Iraq will not be stabilized until the refugees do go back. They were previously integral to the society and are needed; if they can’t go back it will be because sectarian tensions are still a destructive force there.

I want to mention a U.S. government report on Iraqi refugees from January that I came across as I was writing this post.  It’s a report to Congress from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, too long for me to read right now, but I don’t want to lose the link so I’m putting it here.

I also want to point out that Ann has written somewhere close to a million posts on Iraqi refugees in the United States. Almost uniformly they report on difficulties, mistreatment, dissatisfaction, misbehavior, and other negative things. That’s one more reason it is essential that as many Iraqi refugees go home as possible — those in Syria, Jordan, and other surrounding countries, and with them perhaps many who are now in the United States as well.

Update 3/6/10: A report in the Christian Science Monitor says on the first day of voting more Iraqis in Syria voted than expected, though many “disillusioned” refugees declared their intention not to vote.

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