Refugees begin tentative return to violent Iraq

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The Independent Online

From Saudi Arabia, they are free to go home. But "home" is a place of anarchy, violence and guerrilla warfare. The United Nations made the most of the more than 200 Iraqi refugees who were bused across the Saudi border to Basra yesterday, clutching at loved ones they had not seen since they fled Saddam Hussein's ferocious revenge in 1991.

But a mere 22,200 Iraqis are registered as refugees in Saudi Arabia. For at least 204,000 Iraqi Shias living in Iran - most fled the same retaliation from Saddam for their part in a revolt that America encouraged - returning home is going to need, in effect, the permission of the US-led occupying powers.

It's an odd situation, this refugee homecoming. Leila Nassif of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees said yesterday of the return of more than 200,000 Iraqis in Iran that "we are discussing the modalities of this at the moment." The United States, of course, fears that more than 10 years of life in the Islamic republic will have turned 80 per cent of these 200,000 Iraqis - Shias from central and southern Iraq - into militant Islamists ready to wreck the plans of the occupying powers. Their rights as refugees thus appear to be secondary to America's fears.

Yet these are the same refugees who followed the call of President Bush's father, George Bush Snr, to rise up against the Baathist regime after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Most of them have lived in 22 refugee camps along the Iranian border and many have suffered at the hands of the Iranian security services.

In reality, they are more likely to return to Iraq with good reason to avoid creating a miniature version of the same Iranian state that has been hosting them. They would at least be returning to parts of Iraq which are, for the moment, comparatively safe.

The same cannot be said for 300,000 Iraqi exiles in Jordan or up to 72,000 illegally residing in Syria. Nor, indeed, for the large number of Iraqi refugees or asylum-seekers in Europe. There are 70,900 in Germany, 38,500 in Holland and 27,000 in Britain. If they return to Baghdad or to the Sunni areas to the north, they will be entering a country of banditry and guerrilla warfare and US military raids.

Even more disturbing is the role the UN must play in finding homes for the up to 800,000 Kurds displaced from their homes in Kirkuk and Mosul during Saddam Hussein's racist Arabisation programme.

Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Baghdad last week that the UN was trying to avoid conflicts over property and there were few problems when Arabs had already vacated property that originally belonged to Kurds. Where Arab families have stayed in the homes they were allotted by the Baathist regime, Mr Lubbers said, "We talk to the local community and try to check if these people really belong there". In other words, they try to find outwhether the Arabs are from the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul or whether they came north to take advantage of Saddam's ethnic cleansing of the Kurds.

The UN believes that anywhere between 20,000 and 200,000 Kurds could try to move back to their own homes after this year's harvest, a crisis that both the occupying powers and the UN itself will have to face. As Mr Lubbers himself put it, with weariness rather than hopelessness: "I am not able to repair the ill-damages [sic] of Saddam Hussein in one month."

Among Iraqis driven from their homes to other locations in the country are up to 300,000 Marsh Arabs who were forced to leave their reed villages by Saddam's insane project to drain the marshes.

Almost forgotten amid the misery are the refugees of other countries living or stranded inside Iraq. There are 18,700 Iranians, for example, many of them Kurds, in the al-Tash refugee camp in the north who have, since the "liberation" of Iraq, been subject to looting, shooting incidents and the cutting of water supplies by Iraqis. Another 13,500 Turkish refugees, 9,000 of them Kurds, live in the north-west of the country. Equally tragic are the 80,000 Palestinian refugees who moved to Iraq in 1948, 1967, 1973 and 1991, most of whom live in Baghdad. Several thousand have been forced to leave homes provided by Saddam's regime in the days when the PLO maintained offices in Iraq. The oldest of them left Palestine in 1948 with units of the Iraqi army that were fighting, vainly, in the so-called "Arab Liberation Army". When the Iraqis retreated, the Palestinians travelled with them, all the way to Baghdad. Refugees, it seems, go on for ever.

* Iraq's interim government has named a Shia Muslim from the Islamic Dawa Party banned by Saddam as its first president. Ibrahim al-Jaafari is the first of nine leaders who will serve one-month rotations in alphabetical order.Selecting a president had been a contentious issue as ethnic and political groups wrestled for power.