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.

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

“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.

Neighborhoods once Sunni are now Shiite, and vice versa. Homes left vacant are now occupied by strangers. The Iraqi government has done little to compensate lost property and facilitate returns.

And basic services are still in disarray. According to the Pentagon, only 20 percent of the population of Iraq has access to sanitation, 30 percent to health services, 45 percent to potable water, and only 50 percent to more than 12 hours of electricity per day. “We expect it will take us another two or three years to get us to a point where people will have enough electricity,” said Iraq’s envoy to the US, Samir Sumaida’ie, in May.

Refugees in Syria, Jordan and beyond live on meager handouts from the United Nations while they monitor conditions across the border. In October 2009, the UN estimated that 500,000 Iraqi refugees were in need of immediate resettlement abroad.

Despite its leading role in the invasion, the United States has admitted roughly 50,000 Iraqis since. A sizable figure – until you compare it to Sweden. While their refugee policies have recently toughened, this small Nordic state – America’s population is 33 times bigger and its economy is 43 times larger – has also accepted about 50,000 Iraqis in need.

And Sweden did not participate in the war.

US must boost support

We should continue to withdraw our troops – but not our support for the Iraqi people. Our yearly contributions to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – the lead organization dealing with the humanitarian and resettlement needs of Iraqis – equals only several days worth of military spending in Iraq. We must boost financial support to this vital agency.

American funding of Iraqi civil society has been slashed. Four years ago, the US contributed $220 million to Iraqi activists, grass roots peace builders, and human rights workers. This year, the president and Secretary of State requested $32.5 million. This trend must be reversed.

Finally, we must increase our intake of Iraqi refugees, especially former translators and drivers that assisted US soldiers, aid workers, and diplomats. These people are at grave risk when we depart – hundreds have already been killed for supporting the US mission.

Any honest assessment of the invasion must include discussion of the human costs of war – and what we can do to help. Many Iraqi refugees I spoke with still saw the United States as place of opportunity and promise. We should prove them right. We should support Iraqis in need.

Michael Otterman is lead author of “Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage.” His website is

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