Iraq Unprepared for Return of Refugees to Baghdad, U.S. Military Fears

The U.S. military is expressing concern that the Iraqi government is unprepared to deal with a mass return of refugees to Baghdad despite declining violence.

The fears raised echoed a warning by the chief U.N. humanitarian organization that it is too early to promote returns as the security situation in the country remains "volatile and predictable."

Starved for good news, the Shiite-led government has pressed ahead with efforts to draw Iraqis home in a move that has created a flow of returnees, particularly from the neighboring country of Syria.

About 20 buses carrying hundreds of Iraqi refugees arrived in Baghdad from Syria late Wednesday, the first results of a government-funded effort aimed at exploiting growing public confidence that Iraq was finally on the road to stability.

But many of those returning face an uncertain future, however, with houses occupied by members of the rival Islamic sect or burned to the ground during the violence that has changed the religious character of entire neighborhoods and left the capital a maze of concrete walls.

U.S. military officials said the situation raised alarm bells as the government had not issued word on how it planned to deal with disputes arising from the returns as well as other related issues.

"This is a major concern. The government of Iraq doesn't have a policy yet," said Col. Bill Rapp, a senior aide to Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. "We have been asking, pleading with the government of Iraq to come up with a policy."

He said Wednesday during a briefing for reporters that one option was building new housing for those who return to find their homes gone.

Satar Nawrouz, the spokesman for Iraq's Ministry of Migration and Displacement, said suggested policies for helping to reintegrate refugees into their communities had been presented to the government.

"One of these proposals is setting regulations for easing the process of re-employing the returnees in governmental departments and accepting their children in Iraq schools," Nawrouz said, without elaborating.

National Security Minister Sherwan al-Waili, who met the convoy on Wednesday, also said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would give each returning family $750 to get started rebuilding their lives.

No comprehensive numbers have been released on the numbers of Iraqis returning home sometimes years after fleeing as retaliatory violence spiraled in Baghdad after the February 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the northern city of Samarra.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that "around 600 Iraqis have left Syria each day this week, although not all are refugees." Officials in Iraq and Syria have said more than 46,000 refugees returned in October and the flow has continued this month.

Many Iraqis have headed back on their own from Syria and elsewhere as extremist attacks have fallen sharply in Baghdad and other areas. The move also has been prompted by tighter visa rules in Syria and poor job opportunities that have left many of the refugees impoverished.

Abdul-Khaliq Mohammed, a 49-year-old father of six, left his predominantly Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad for Syria more than a year ago to escape violence. He returned when relatives said life was improving.

"I still have doubts about the current calm in Baghdad, but no matter what happens, even if the security situation gets bad again, I have no intention of going back to Syria, where life was very difficult and expensive to us," he said.

The military is largely taking an advisory role on the issue but is pressing the government to develop more specific policies to take care of people coming back and to avoid forced evictions.

"Right now we're watching and waiting," said Col. Cheryl Smart, a military strategy officer. "We're working with the government of Iraq so they can be prepared."

The Iraqi government, meanwhile, is hoping to accelerate the flow — and draw more attention to the recent drop in violence — by offering to pay for trips home. The program also seeks to win favor from neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan that are struggling with an estimated 2.2 million Iraqi refugees.

UNHCR estimated that 800 Iraqis crossed the border from Syria en route to Baghdad in Wednesday's heavily secured convoy.

The agency said most of the refugees were going back to Iraq because they had run out of money, not only because the security situation appeared to be improving.

"Figures compiled by UNHCR suggest that only 14 percent of Iraqi refugees are returning because of improved security conditions," the agency said on its Web site. "Around 70 percent say they are leaving because of tougher visa regulations and because they are not allowed to work and can no longer afford to stay in Syria."