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America must not neglect Iraq's refugees as US troops withdraw

Even as many US troops head home, we must ramp up our commitment to the 4.5 million Iraqis who’ve been displaced by war.

By Michael Otterman / August 13, 2010

New York

Bombs still detonate and Iraqi political factions remain deadlocked, but American pundits and politicians have vied to take credit for US “success” in Iraq.

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“I am very optimistic about Iraq. I mean, this could be one of the great achievements of this administration,” said Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year.

Days later former Vice President Dick Cheney shot back: “If they’re going to take credit for it, fair enough, for what they’ve done while they’re there. But it ought to go with a healthy dose of ‘thank you, George Bush’ up front...”

Now, as thousands of US troops withdraw to meet an August 31 deadline for a formal end to US combat operations, discussion has turned to Iraq’s uncertain future.

Lost in this new debate are the deep human costs of the 2003 US-led invasion – and what we, as Americans, owe Iraqis.

The costs of war

Iraq Body Count – an organization that combs media for reports of Iraqi violence – now puts the total civilian death count at roughly 100,000.

And there are currently 4.5 million displaced Iraqis languishing on the outskirts of Iraqi cities and scattered throughout nearby Jordan and Syria. This represents the largest urban refugee crisis in the world.

Most displaced Iraqis fled Iraq amid the height of the civil war in 2006 and 2007. At the time, as many as 30,000 Iraqis per month poured into Syria. Thousands fled to Jordan everyday. The torrent slowed by 2008, but the refugees remain.

Refugees' views

Dozens of them have shared their stories with me.

“I don’t own a thing and even if I owned the world, if Iraq would become a country again, I would never return,” said an Iraqi I met two years ago in Jeramana, a hub for Iraqis in Damascus, Syria. He told me between sobs about the kidnapping of his youngest son, whom he later found dead in an abandoned Baghdad schoolyard. He fled to Syria with his wife and two surviving children the day after he recovered the body.

“Everything is gone,” an Iraqi living in a crumbling apartment in East Amman, Jordan, told me in 2008 while his pregnant wife paced nearby. In 2006, his house in Baquba, Iraq, burnt down amid crossfire between Iraqi insurgents and US forces. He sat at home and smoked cigarettes while pondering the future. “I never want to go back. [Iraq] will be divided,” he said.

Despite the relative drop in violence, fewer Iraqis returned home in 2009 than in 2008.

Sporadic violence keeps many away – about 2,000 civilians have been killed this year alone. Many refugees do not have a home to return to.