Violence is down, but many Iraqis still can't go home

Most of Iraq's internally displaced people are unable to return to their houses. The lack of basic services and an inability to rebuild their war-damaged homes keeps them away.

Tom A. Peter
Trying to rebuild: Sheikh Jamal Sadoun (l.) and his brother, Waleed, spoke with US Army Lt. Col. Matthew Anderson about efforts to bring people back to their Iraqi village.

When Sheikh Jamal Sadoun, a prominent Sunni accused of working with the US, returned to his once sprawling eight-bedroom farmhouse late last year, a pile of rubble and charred furniture was all that remained.

Members of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the home-grown Sunni insurgent group, bombed it after he and his family fled from this small farming town in Diyala Province in the middle of 2007. At the time, sectarian warfare was raging across Iraq and anyone who didn't support the insurgents' aims could find themselves in their cross hairs. "They didn't even steal anything. They just blew it all up," says Sheikh Sadoun.

Despite losing everything, Sadoun, who now lives in one room with 17 family members, is leading an effort with his brother, Waleed, to rebuild their village of Hadi Sadoun, south of the provincial capital, Baquba.

They've brought back at least 90 of the 320 families who fled the violence, but now they say the biggest obstacle is finding a way to rebuild homes and restore central services. "Now the people who are still in Baquba are staying there because we don't have services, not because of security," says Waleed.

Although the government and international organizations have begun offering assistance to displaced people willing to return, their work has been slowed by bureaucratic hurdles, drought, and lingering security concerns. Even if stability continues to improve, most Iraqis say that it will be years before normalcy returns.

Nationwide, there are between 1.6 million and 2.8 million internally displaced people (IDPs) – refugees who left their homes, but not Iraq. According to the International Organization of Migration (IOM), 288,000 have returned home.

Outside Baghdad, Diyala Province has created the largest number of IDPs, with nearly 18.6 percent of the displaced originating from the agricultural region once the breadbasket of the Middle East.

But the ethnic mix here made it an epicenter of internal fighting as the country slid deeper into civil war in 2007. In addition to sectarian fighting, many of the tribes in the area around Hadi Sadoun began feuding, while AQI worked to control the area to use it as a base of operations.

Now, in an effort to encourage returnees, the government of Iraq plans to compensate those whose houses were destroyed by insurgents. Depending on the scope of damage and the value of the house, residents will receive anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of their home's original value.

If the government pays the money, many residents say they'll return. So far, compensation has not reached the majority of those eligible. As part of the compensation program, an evaluation committee must visit the house of each applicant to determine how much they'll receive. Until recently, threat levels stopped most committees from making on-site inspections. As security strengthens, locals have become impatient with the government's reluctance.

"I don't blame the government for everything, because we weren't 100 percent secure [several months ago], so they couldn't send an evaluation committee, but now it's secure so I will expect them to come," says Jamal Sadoun, the sheikh, who is confident he will eventually receive compensation, though perhaps not as soon as he'd like.

Still, the larger challenge will probably be to reinstate the services that eroded in the absence of upkeep from the government and locals.

"In Diyala, we do have a relatively high number of returnees, and, unfortunately, not only do they face destruction, but the population has also been confronted with years of drought," says Rafiq Tschannen, chief of mission for IOM-Iraq, based in Amman, Jordan.

At least two years of drought, combined with unregulated water use and pump-station problems, have caused a number of Diyala's canals to run dry. Now, many farmers, even if they're comfortable returning, are unable to work their land.

Without the canals, some farmers dug wells. But many did not dig deep enough to reach fresh water, and instead tapped into pockets of salt water. When used to irrigate fields, the salt water severely damaged topsoil and now these fields require restoration before they'll once again sustain crops.

The IDPs, however, often face few better prospects in cities, says Staff Sgt. Richard Wootress, a civil-affairs team leader attached to 2-8 Field Artillery in Diyala. "They cannot find jobs in the cities, because they don't have the kind of skills that would allow them to get jobs in an urban environment."

While the government is making an effort to reestablish central services, a member of the State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Diyala says: "It's happening more on an ad hoc basis than a coordinated and systematic approach."

"[But] now with the conflict subsiding it's really going to be incumbent on the government to provide services," says the PRT member, speaking anonymously because he is not authorized to speak with the media.

Although Diyala remains one of the most turbulent provinces in Iraq, in the last year and a half it has made tremendous strides toward peace.

"In the past Diyala was haunted by tribal issues," says Sheikh Hasan Aydun al-Temim, manager of tribal affairs for Diyala, which has Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish tribes.

But since July 2007, Mr. Temim says there have been more than 200 tribal reconciliations, which has put an end to much of the fighting. Now, US military officials say a fragmented, but still active AQI is responsible for most of the ongoing violence, not tribes.

Additionally, residents say stronger Iraqi security forces are making it safer to return. And their return is critical to stability, says US Army Lt. Col. Matthew Anderson. "The more IDPs you can bring back makes this no longer a safe haven for AQI."

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