More Iraqis go north, fleeing violence

The United Nations begins a conference Tuesday to address the growing number of refugees fleeing Iraq and their homes within the country.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Uthman Hassan is relieved to live in a city where his first name won't get him killed.

He's a Sunni named after an early Islamic Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, who is revered by Sunnis and disputed by Shiites. It's an identity that could spell death in Baghdad, where religious fault lines continue to divide the city.

Mr. Hassan fled the capital after his older brother, Umar, also named after an early Sunni Muslim leader, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. Hassan suspects that his brother was the victim of Shiite militants and was murdered for having the wrong name.

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"Everyday I left the house I made sure to say goodbye to my family," he says. "Going to the grocery store, meeting a friend, the fear something bad might happen never went away."

Since moving to Arbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq three months ago to start work at a new downtown motel, Hassan's constant anxiety has been replaced by the smile that he flashes to guests, many of whom also come from points south to find peace.

Some 1.9 million Iraqis have been displaced within the country since the 2003 US-led invasion, according to United Nations figures, with as many as 2.7 million expected by the end of this year. In Arbil alone, the Iraqi Red Crescent has registered more than 5,000 families – or approximately 30,000 people – as refugees in the past two years.

The crisis of Iraqi refugees – both fleeing to neighboring countries and within their homeland – is the subject of a two-day United Nations conference in Geneva starting Tuesday. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has requested $60 million for humanitarian operations, but maintains that this is just a fraction of what is needed. Spokesman Ron Redmond says the conference is not a pledging event; rather, it's an effort to raise awareness at the international level of how grave the situation really is.

"Those who have fled are becoming increasingly desperate as they and their host communities run out of resources," Mr. Redmond says. "We hope to hear commitments on all of these aspects [at the conference] because the international community needs to focus collectively on a whole range of humanitarian needs."

Most of the estimated 2 million Iraqis who have fled to neighboring countries have settled in Jordan or Syria. The UNHCR has attempted to resettle many of the registered Iraqi refugees, but found host countries for only 404 worldwide in the first nine months of 2006.

The trouble in getting into Arbil

The Arbil-based Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which was granted autonomy to administer three Kurdish-majority provinces in the north, sees itself as a model of stability and says its borders are open to Iraqis.

"This is their home and all are welcome," says police chief Abdullah Khaylani. "You must respect anyone who is coming to you and needs help. These people are suffering."

But the price for peace is a vigilant security apparatus, reinforced by broad popular support and strict preconditions: Those wishing to enter must have a Kurdish sponsor; entrants pass through a series of security checkpoints on arrival, after which they must go directly to the Directorate of Residence to register. Personal files are kept and updated, as emigres return and report their employment and living status.

Arab Iraqis who have "a profession or the funds to be economically viable in the north have the easiest time entering into the region," says Dana Graber, internally displaced people monitoring officer for the International Organization for Migration. "Otherwise, it is very difficult for Arab Iraqis to enter," he adds, though he expects an influx of refugees to continue to head north as instability deepens elsewhere.

Hassan and his best friend, Abbas Khafaji, another Arab Iraqi refugee from Baghdad, feel indebted to Salim Agrawe, the Kurdish co-owner of the Milano Motel, for offering them a job before they left Baghdad. They say he has treated them like sons without regard to their Arab identity; Salim insists the privilege is his own. But the tight restrictions in the Kurdish north often lead to other Arab Iraqis who have emigrated being treated as second-class citizens.

Hana lives in a decrepit apartment complex, a 10-minute drive from the Milano Motel, with two other women from the south. She fled Baghdad eight months ago to get away from a radical husband who, she says, was "very active" in the insurgency.

She made it to Sulaymaniyah, the second-largest city in the Kurdish region, where a woman's organization found her a job, and she soon moved to Arbil.

Here, Hana found "another kind of suffering," says the friend who took her in, Vian al-Khaledi, a women's activist of Kurdish-Arab background who also left Baghdad last year after seven neighbors were executed in the same evening. Ms. Khaledi described the frustrations of many women who have come looking for a fresh start.

Often, those who must make a living are subject to abuse in exchange for low-paying work, including make-or-break demands for sexual favors, she says. Without a steady job, she adds, they may be expelled. "We are Iraqis and yet we need permission to stay.... We are strangers, here in our own country," she says.

Mr. Graber says reports compiled by his organization suggest that Arab Iraqis in general have a "much more difficult time entering and settling [in the north]." He notes that non-Kurds are officially prohibited from purchasing property and go without financial assistance from the KRG, with one exception: Christian families receive a cash grant from the Ministry of Finance, which is headed by a Christian minister.

Fears Baghdadis will bring violence

Some Kurds say they sympathize with the plight of Arab Iraqis but fear that as more arrive, crime and violence may follow.

"We have no problem with Arabs," says Salar Sabr, a construction contractor who says many Arab emigres on his payroll do good work. But he worries that continued emigration could spell long-term trouble for his people and their relentless hope for an independent state.

Indeed, violence has been moving further north in Iraq. Last week, a suicide bomber detonated a truck full of explosives in a largely Kurdish neighborhood of Kirkuk, killing at least 15 people and wounding at least 200 others, according to Iraqi police. This came after a series of bombings on March 19 claimed 26 lives. The latest attack appeared to be in response to a plan to relocate Arabs from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Observers say this may be a sign of worse events to come.

Back in Arbil, Khaledi says she is ready to return home to Baghdad the moment conditions improve. Asked if she might travel to Jordan or Syria as masses of other Arab Iraqis have, she exchanges glances with a friend and the two collectively shake their heads.

Where, then? "Another planet," Khaledi says.

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