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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 Jason MotlaghContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2007


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

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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.

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Kurdish region of northern Iraq three months ago to start work at a new downtown motel, Hassan's constant anxiety has been replaced by the smile that he flashes to guests, many of whom also come from points south to find peace.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