Iraq: The Exodus Continues

What’s wrong with this picture? Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion, with the phased American military withdrawal already underway and following elections this month that the Obama administration hopes will mark the closing chapter of U.S. involvement in Iraq, there are still more Iraqi refugees leaving their country than returning to it. According to the latest report from the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, released last week, 24,000 Iraqi refugees sought asylum in the industrialized nations in 2009. But that’s not counting those who crossed into Syria or Jordan, who have in the past tended to be more numerous but are not covered in the U.N. surveys. According to a Brookings Institution ongoing Iraq watch, there are now 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, and around 450,000 in Jordan.

But the number of Iraqi returnees — a standard gauge of whether the refugee population believes official assurances that life is returning to normal — was low last year, and remains so now. The U.N. says 20,000 Iraqis returned last year from across the border in Syria. But only 2,000 made the reverse trip from Sweden, one of the major host countries in the West.

So who still feels threatened enough to want to leave? Iraq’s smaller, non-Muslim religious and ethnic minorities represent a disproportionately high percentage of registered refugees. Since 2003, the country’s Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Yazidis, Sabean Mandaeans, and Turkmen have been decimated. Iraq’s Christian community, for example — one of the oldest in the world — has been the target of continuous violence from Islamic extremists, mainly Shiites. Iraqi Christians have been killed, abducted, beaten, threatened, and forced to convert; several of their churches have been bombed and their properties destroyed. A Christian minority numbering 1.4 million prior to the invasion has been reduced to less than 500,000.

One motive is comeuppance: Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Christians were largely left alone and, as a result, prospered — so now it’s payback time. They are identified with Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s foreign minister and a Chaldean Catholic, the largest subgroup among them. But the other reason is a clear determination by elements of the Shiite majority to destroy the traditional multi-faith fabric of Iraqi society in favor of an all-Islamic state. The smaller minorities do not have militias or tribal structures with which to defend themselves, and the Iraqi authorities have provided little protection. And Christians actually declined additional U.S. protection to avoid reinforcing rumors that they were collaborating with “the invader.” Iraq’s minorities have been largely marginalized by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government, although they will have a total of eight seats in the new 352-member parliament.

Many refugees could see some hope in Ayad Allawi’s surprising success in this month’s parliamentary elections. Allawi is said to be a non-sectarian politician without a fundamentalist bone in his body. But whether his paper-thin plurality will be enough to make him prime minister, and what he will do if it does, are both questions better contemplated from the safety of Stockholm or Damascus.