Where will Iraq go next?

By Deborah Campbell

Late in the summer of 2006, a middle-class teacher, whom I will call Rania, checked on her sleeping son and daughter and then left for her customary morning walk.* The gardens in her gated community near the Green Zone seemed to defy the violence elsewhere in Baghdad, and she enjoyed the rare calm they provided. When she returned she found an envelope on her. doorstep. She opened it immediately. Several neat lines of type informed Rania that she was Sunni, therefore a terrorist, and as a consequence her son, who was twelve, would be killed and his body thrown in the Tigris. The letter was from the Mahdi Army, a paramilitary force led by the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Such letters are a common instrument of the sectarian cleansing that has taken hold of Iraq. Often they contain a single bullet, drops of blood, or a severed chicken neck. If the recipients fail to leave their homes, a demand frequently specified in the letters, the threats are carried out. On a single day that year, for instance, Iraqi workers pulled fifteen bodies from the river, each clearly a victim of torture.

Rania called her husband, Malek, a journalist based in Fallujah, then collected their most important belongings: money, jewelry, passports, some items of clothing. As she was making her preparations, a neighbor whom she knew to be a Mahdi Army officer stopped by. He urged her to call Malek home to Baghdad. He would guarantee Malek’s protection, he said, and kill whoever had written the letter. Rania did not believe the man. She understood his presence to mean that the real target of the letter was her husband. Within the hour, she and the children were gone.

She hired the driver of a GMC (the generic term in Iraq for any kind of oversize SUV) to take her family to Jordan; the cost of a seat, based on rising demand, was $100 per person. They were joined by a Shia antiques dealer who carried with him a bale of discontinued Iraqi dinars bearing the face of Saddam Hussein to sell as souvenirs abroad, and a Sunni doctor who purchased two seats to accommodate all her luggage. Stories were concocted for the border guards—business to conduct, a wedding to attend, a short stay. To avoid bandits, they drove in a convoy with other GMCs, racing along the highway at top speed. The driver had used a Sunni name when introducing himself to his passengers, but once they had successfully crossed the border into Jordan and stopped at last for a meal, the restaurant owner greeted him by a name that was Shia. For the first time since leaving Baghdad, the passengers, stunned and relieved to have arrived intact, had something to laugh about.

Malek soon found a job with an American aid organization in Jordan. At the time, Jordan was not admitting Iraqis into public schools, so Rania took the children a couple of hundred miles north to live in Syria, which had a more tolerant school-enrollment policy. For the moment she would stay at a pilgrim’s hotel in Sayeda Zainab, one of the dusty suburbs of Damascus where the refugees congregated by the hundreds of thousands, spending their savings to rent cinder-block apartments, bumping into friends, and enemies, they had not seen in years.

IN THE THREE YEARS before Rania’s arrival in Syria, a million Iraqis were driven from their homes. The first great wave had been displaced within the country by massive aerial and artillery bombardments from U.S. forces. With the civic infrastructure destroyed and the government no longer functioning, though, the threats grew increasingly personal, and for many it became clear that there was no place within Iraq where they could be safe. Ex-military men and Ba’ath Party officials, their names gleaned from looted government computers, were the first to be targeted by emerging militias and the first to flee the country, followed by intellectuals and academics and anyone who worked with the American forces. In February 2006, the bombing of a Shia shrine in Samarra precipitated attacks on 200 Sunni mosques within a week. After that, lists of specific targets were no longer required. It was enough to be identifiably Shia or Sunni or a member of a minority group: a Christian, a Mandaean, a Yezidi, a Palestinian. A diplomat I know in Damascus described this process of the nation’s civil society devolving into tribal structures as the “Somalia-ization of Iraq.”

My Iraqi neighbors in Sayeda Zainab would tell me of the children back home in Baghdad who played in soccer fields next to dead bodies. Of the girl from Basra who was gang-raped by eight men who posted a notice of their act on the door of her high school. The fourteen-year-old boy who carried a grown man’s corpse to the police station because the police were afraid to do it themselves. The village in which every Omar (an identifiably Sunni first name) was murdered. The Shia woman who lost twenty pounds in a week after identifying the bodies of five cousins, all young men found in a garbage dump with their ears sliced off, their genitals stuffed inside their mouths, their hands bolted together in the position of prayer. For six straight days she could not stop vomiting.

The result of this societal collapse has been the largest exodus in the Middle East since the Palestinian refugee crisis of 1948. One fifth of the population have fled their homes. In addition to the 2.5 million people known to be displaced within Iraq, a further 2.5 million have left the country. Several hundred thousand have made it to Egypt, the Gulf States, Iran, Turkey, or Yemen, and Jordan hosts another half million. But it is Syria that has taken on the largest burden.

By the summer of 2007, when I arrived in Damascus, at least 1.5 million Iraqis had made their way to a nation with a native population of less than 20 million. They were driving up demand for everything, and many Syrians were taking second jobs to pay rents that had first doubled, then tripled. Then there were the power outages, which had accompanied the arrival of the refugees. Iraqis joked that the blackouts were a way of making them feel at home, but the Syrians had their own joke: Two Iraqis are walking in Sayeda Zainab. One of them, astonished, points to a third man in the distance. “Look!” he says. “It’s a Syrian!”

SYRIA IS PREDOMINANTLY Sunni, but my own neighborhood was named for the magnificent Shrine of Sayeda Zainab, a popular destination for Shia pilgrims from Iran and Bahrain. In the crowded streets, posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in aviator sunglasses hung from the windows of shops that sold Iraqi shawarma, international phone cards, and cheap perfumes with names like One-Dollar Man and Blue Feeling. Damascus has long been deeply cosmopolitan, and Iraqi Sunnis and Shias lived there side by side as they once had in Baghdad. Evening came and there was no curfew. Children played in the streets. Most of the time there was functioning electricity and running water.

Nonetheless, some of the people I met in Sayeda Zainab could no longer fathom the existence of civic order. One elderly woman in the neighborhood had seen her husband shot to death outside their house in Baghdad. Now she kept her two adult daughters and three daughters-in-law, all of their husbands dead or missing, locked inside a windowless apartment. For a year and a half, the women had not seen direct sunlight. This, she believed, was her duty to them. In the evenings the hills overlooking Damascus were lit up by nightclubs filled with the tens of thousands of Iraqi girls and widows who supported their families by selling themselves. Beautiful Iraqi entertainers in glittering dresses sang of Sunni-Shia brotherhood, but later, after some hours of drinking, their Iraqi clients would start fights outside: “You are Shia, you people killed my brother!”

Syrian authorities are worried about the rise in crime and the spread of sectarianism to what had been one of the region’s most secular countries. I heard regular reports of Iraqi militias photographing refugees, and Moqtada al-Sadr’s representatives kept an office in the marketplace. Two cars rigged with explosives had been intercepted in Damascus, and it was said that a Syrian thief breaking into an apartment in Sayeda Zainab had discovered a weapons cache so enormous that he felt compelled to report it to the police. “Iraq is an atomic explosion,” one man explained. “It is a chain reaction that has not come to an end.”

ONE OF MY NEIGHBORHOOD friends was Aisha, who lived with her husband and two children near the shrine. Aisha had been a city councillor in Baghdad and had unofficially adopted the same role here. Day and night, refugees would stop by her dingy apartment to recount their situations, and she would promise to see what she could do. One young man, an unemployed Mercedes mechanic from Karbala, had returned home briefly only to have his mother hide him on her roof for six weeks while militants searched for him. Now he lived on Aisha’s balcony. But what of the woman, her husband shot in the back by American soldiers while taking his television to a repair shop, who was now responsible for supporting five children while caring for her paralyzed husband? What could the widowed mother of a boy who was tortured by militants do to stop his constant suicide attempts when she had three other disabled children to care for and he could not be left alone near a knife, a shoelace, an electrical socket?

On the weekends, Aisha gave free English classes to high school-age Iraqis at her home. This seemed a more promising enterprise. Aisha had been the first girl in her tribe ever to finish high school and the only one, man or woman, to complete a university education. When her uncles and brothers protested to her father, a wealthy landowner, that a farm girl had no need of higher learning in order to tend orange trees and date palms, and that mixing with men could stain her honor, he silenced them. No one, he said, knows what the future holds.

Aisha herself fled Iraq because she had been kidnapped; the condition of her release was a $50,000 ransom and a promise to leave Iraq forever. Since her kidnapping, Aisha had found moving her shoulder to be painful, so I tried to teach her yoga. We stretched our arms up, up, up. Now bending, now touching toes, then up again. Then lifting the arms up and over, up and over, breathing from the stomach. She joked that we could offer classes: one for the victims of Saddam Hussein, one for the victims of the militias, one for the victims of the Americans. The boy who had pointed his machine gun at her when they grabbed her from the street was not old enough to grow a proper mustache, and the last thing she remembered before they blindfolded her and threw her onto her shoulder in the back of a truck was how happy he had looked. He had shown that he could do the job!

SAIF WAS A FORMER intelligence officer, a Sunni and a captain in the once fearsome Fedayeen Saddam. Now he lived down a dusty alleyway from Aisha. Seated on the floor of his barren one-room apartment in the semidarkness (to conserve electricity), he told me that the biggest mistake of the war was to “lay the Iraqi army off work.” He was referring to the Coalition Provisional Authority’s decision under former American CPA Administrator Paul Bremer to fire the half-million-strong army and intelligence services without securing the weapons depots. These unemployed soldiers-well-trained, angry, and with families to feed-had formed the core of the militias now fighting for control of Iraq.

Saif spent his days feeding and bathing his wife, who had been paralyzed when their farmhouse near Baghdad was hit with rocket-propelled grenades by the Badr Brigade, a Shia militia connected to the new Iraqi government. She was thin, with lustrous black hair that tumbled from her head scarf, and she had been lying on a mat in a corner of their apartment for the past two years, ever since the family had fled to Damascus. “Hysterical paralysis,” read the medical report Saif showed me.

Their eldest daughter had been killed in the attack, their eldest son abducted and tortured with electric cables to the head-now he babbled incoherently and was violent unless drugged. Their nine-year-old daughter was left badly burned. Saif could not afford surgery for his daughter’s burns, which had puffed up like a topographical map, nor was he able to send her to school; their presence in Syria was illegal because the family did not have the residency permit that could be renewed only by crossing back over the Iraqi border every three months. Saif was convinced that if he made such a journey, he would be identified and killed. “Whoever captures me gets thousands of dollars,” he said. In the meantime, he stayed hidden. The Syrian authorities had already tried to deport him once, until a small amount of money resolved the matter.

IT WAS HARD FOR Iraqis to find work in Damascus, so some were paying smugglers to take them west, across Syria’s border with Lebanon. Typically, these would-be laborers were not family men like Saif, nor were they Sunnis. They were young Shia men who gravitated to the southern suburbs of Beirut, where they lived under the protection of the Shia Hezbollah. This was the neighborhood Israel had bombed in the 2006 war, the neighborhood that Hezbollah had taken charge of rebuilding, and so refugees from one war had come to repair the wreckage from another. The Lebanese were less concerned with historic ironies, however, than with the addition of another destabilizing minority to their already fragile sectarian balance. The refugees, if discovered, were arrested and forced to choose between indefinite imprisonment and deportation to Iraq.

I came to understand their situation somewhat more intimately when, on a trip to Lebanon, I made the serious mistake of losing my passport. Replacing it required that I report to the Soviet-style slab that was the Beirut headquarters of the Lebanese General Security Department. There an intelligence officer escorted me to an underground holding cell and left me to sit next to several downcast men in handcuffs. What, I wondered, was their crime? While another officer wrote my report-in longhand, using carbon paper to make copies-I spoke to the only woman I had yet seen working in any of the security offices. She was improbably young and improbably pretty, and her real name, more improbably yet, was Jeanne D’Arc Hobeika, She worked for Caritas Internationalis, a Christian organization that had been helping the prisoners here-all illegal refugees, most of them Iraqis-get proper food and medicine. Caritas, she explained, also housed their wives and children so they would not be jailed along with their husbands, some of whom had been detained for more than six months.

Since the process of compiling my intelligence report would take several more hours and many additional steps-all to no purpose, since it turned out that I had left the passport in a taxi and the driver had promptly returned it to my embassy-Jeanne D’Arc invited me to sit in her small office beside the holding pen rather than wait with the prisoners. As we talked, one of the men in handcuffs shuffled in wearing plastic sandals. It turned out that he was a moderately wealthy civil engineer from Iraq; he had been arrested after trying to get his family to Europe on passports he had purchased in Damascus for $7,000. This was his forty-seventh day of detention. Lebanese security would agree to release him only if he in turn agreed to return to Baghdad, which, he told me, was not possible because he was Catholic and would be killed now that the Christians had been driven from the city. For the moment, he had no choice but to remain in prison until something could be sorted out. Jeanne D’Arc was trying to arrange resettlement abroad through the United Nations, but it was almost impossible. “Nobody wants the Iraqis,” she said.

THE SYRIANS, TOO, WERE becoming concerned that the Iraqis could be only the most recent guests to become permanent residents. After all, more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees were still in Syria. Tensions had begun to surface. On the day in August that Iraq’s soccer team won the Asia Cup, I overheard one Syrian man mutter to another, “Those Iraqis think they are really something.” That night, while the refugees in Damascus celebrated, vandals smashed the windows of cars and trucks with Iraqi plates.

“There is no sane government on Earth that would accept such tremendous jeopardy to its social, economic, and political balance,” Abdullah al-Dardari, Syria’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs, told me at his office in central Damascus. Syrians were suffering, he said, and the refugees were costing the government $2 billion a year, crowding the schools and hospitals, straining the infrastructure. Yet the nations that had supported the war had turned their backs. “Something must give,” he said.

Nor was the Iraqi government pleased with the situation. The rumor swirling up through the dust and fumes of Sayeda Zainab was that the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was due to arrive for a meeting with Syrian leaders and was going to persuade the Syrians to close the border and terminate their residency permits. The prime minister-mindful perhaps that George Bush had recently described “a certain level of frustration with the leadership” in Iraq-was eager to show signs of progress. The day before the meeting, I was walking through the market with Aisha when we were approached by someone she knew, a short man with a Saddam Hussein mustache. “Do you have a rocket launcher?” he asked. Why? “To shoot al-Maliki’s plane from the sky. So he will not be able to tell the Syrians to send us back. He wants to convince the world that Iraq is stable, that his government is a success. We cannot go back. They will kill us all.”

But the Iraqi prime minister’s plane landed safely, rolling to a stop in the Damascus airport.

AISHA’S YOUNGER BROTHER, Qassem, worked as a driver between Baghdad and Damascus. He showed me his four identity cards-his own, a Shia, a Sunni, and a neutral college LD. should the intentions of the men who stopped him be unclear. Two years earlier, his GMC had been carjacked in Anbar by bandits from a Sunni tribe. Now the same men were receiving arms and money from the Americans to protect the highway in the name of Islam. Since the highway was under Sunni control, Qassem gave his Shia passengers what he called “lessons in how to stay alive,” telling them which sheikh to say they knew, which region to say they were from, and which family, in case they were stopped.

Drivers would wait outside a travel agency in the marketplace of Sayeda Zainab, where a barker with a voice like gravel shouted, “Baghdad, Baghdad, Baghdad!” Once the vehicles were filled, they would drive east along the hundred-mile ribbon of desert highway that runs from Damascus to the Syria-Iraq border crossing at Al-Tanf, and on to Baghdad for a journey that took ten hours-twenty if they got caught behind an American convoy. The trip from Baghdad to Damascus had cost as much as $200 in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing, but the return trip, which was in lower demand, cost about $60.

I went to Al-Tanf myself one day, to see what the crossing was like. There was no simple gate or tollbooth but rather a series of checkpoints between the two nations. The terminal checkpoint on the Syrian side was flanked by concrete walls topped with barbed wire, from which strips of windblown plastic bags fluttered like tiny flags. Out of sight beyond the wall was a no-man’s land that had been turned into a tent camp by several hundred Palestinians who had fled Iraq but been denied entry to Syria or Jordan, and beyond that was the U.S. checkpoint for entry (or re-entry) into Iraq. The most notable feature on the Syrian side was a massive parking lot, which was filled that afternoon with dozens of empty transport trucks from Iraq, their drivers sleeping or picnicking in the cavernous shadows beneath them, waiting for sundown, when they would drive into Damascus, load up, and drive back to Baghdad.

THE BEST WAY TO AVOID returning to Iraq was to leave the Middle East entirely, which was difficult. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had converted a warehouse a few miles from Sayeda Zainab into a refugee reception center, and when I visited, hundreds of Iraqis were lined up in the hot sun, most of them hoping to get on a list of refugees who would eventually be resettled in North America or Europe. A loudspeaker called them forward one by one to make an appointment that would permit them to join another line inside the building some eight months later. There they would meet with a registration clerk, who would interview them and refer their cases to other officials who would determine whether they had a chance of being added to another list of the most vulnerable-widows, orphans, victims of torture, the elderly, the ill- that would be submitted to the countries that might or might not agree to accept them.

Beneath the tin roof of the registration center, where families who had made appointments many months earlier now waited quietly on benches, I sat next to a young widow named Awad, a member of the minority Mandaean sect, who follow the teachings of John the Baptist. She told me that her husband had owned a plot of land in Nasiriyah and that the Mahdi Army had demanded he turn it over to them. He refused, so they shot him dead. She had no papers to document her husband’s death because she had been afraid to enter the police station. Like most Iraqis, she believed the police were connected to the militias. She had left with nothing but the clothes she was wearing. There was very little the UNHCR could do for her. Its budget in Syria was about $20 per refugee annually, and few nations were willing to take Iraqis in the first place.

After the Vietnam War, the United States resettled 1.4 million Southeast Asian refugees within its borders, the largest such resettlement in the nation’s history, but the U.S. has hesitated even to acknowledge the current crisis in the Middle East.

This reluctance to respond rests on a narrative of impending triumph. A 2006 State Department report found that “changed conditions” in Iraq “have expanded the possibilities for refugee repatriation,” and added, “It is hoped that significant numbers of Iraqi refugees located throughout the Middle East and Europe will soon be able to return home.” In 2007 the State Department acknowledged that an “explosion of sectarian violence” had “led to wide-scale displacement within and from Iraq,” but maintained nonetheless that “the primary goal continues to be to support efforts to create conditions that will allow Iraqis to return home.” Later that year, the administration even campaigned against a bipartisan initiative to create a special immigrant visa for Iraqis who worked for U.S. organizations and found their lives endangered. That initiative eventually passed Congress, but the plight of former U.S. employees, particularly translators, remains the sum total of the discussion of the crisis within American media and political circles. The result is that, although more than 30,000 Iraqis were resettled in the United States after the 1991 Gulf War, only 3,775 Iraqis were granted entry between the beginning of the 2003 invasion and the end of January 2008.

Part of the reason for the slowdown is the Bush Administration’s interpretation of the so-called material support ban, which Congress had expanded significantly after 9/11 in order to weed out would-be immigrants who assist designated terrorist groups. The ban is so broadly applied that any Iraqi who has paid ransom to such groups-and rare is the Iraqi who has not had a friend or relative kidnapped-is considered to have materially supported terrorists and is thus, along with his or her spouse and children, ineligible for resettlement. In addition, the UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Erika Feller, noted at a conference last fall that entire categories of refugees have become “untouchables,” including not just “politically sensitive” ethnic groups but also ill or elderly or otherwise vulnerable refugees who might pose a financial burden to host countries.

James Foley, the State Department’s senior coordinator on Iraqi refugee issues, announced in February that the United States would seek to settle as many as 12,000 Iraqi refugees within the U.S. by next September, but it seems unlikely that the administration will meet even this low bar. “We are certainly not guaranteeing we are going to reach the 12,000 number,” Foley told CNN. “There are factors and variables that may make that difficult.”

WITH LEGAL RESETTLEMENT an option for none but a few, the exodus has continued to spread by illegal means. Many refugees travel to Malaysia or Indonesia, which still grant visas to Iraqis, and from there to Australia. Others take a ship to Cyprus and cross into Europe on small boats. Some Iraqis, conned by swindlers, end up trapped in Nigeria or Cambodia or India without documents. Others die en route to Europe, trapped in meat lockers or the backs of transport trucks. One young man I met had been arrested while hiding in the woods near the border between Turkey and Greece. “The smuggler ran off,” he told me, laughing. He had spent several days in a Greek prison before bribing the guards to release him. Now he was back in Syria, and for his next attempt he was paying a Turkish smuggler $9,000- half up front, half on arrival. He would head to northern Iraq, walk over the mountains to Turkey, then use forged documents to enter Greece, his gateway to the rest of Europe.

For many Iraqis, it is Sweden that is the promised land. When Leif Eriksson assumed responsibility for migration at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus in 2005, he was assured that it would not be a demanding posting. Since then, however, his country has emerged as the only Western nation to accept large numbers of Iraqi refugees. In 2006, 9,000 Iraqis applied for asylum there, three times more than the year before. The industrial town of Sodertalje alone received 1,100 refugees, more than twice as many as all of the United States. In 2007, Sweden, with a population of only 9 million, received 18,000 Iraqi asylum-seekers, most of whom arrived through human-trafficking networks. In all, more than 115,000 Iraqis have made their way to Sweden, and the great majority have been granted asylum. Even those whose claims were rejected were simply asked to leave voluntarily.

Eriksson explained all of this to me one evening at Leila’s, a popular rooftop restaurant within the stone walls of the old city of Damascus. He noted that the current crisis dwarfs even the 1948 dislocation of the Palestinians. Now Europe is a target for resettlement. Even the Swedes have become concerned about the influx, and in fact they recently toughened their asylum policies. The Swedish police are working in Damascus to prevent Iraqis from making the trip, Eriksson said, but mortar finds cracks to flow into, and the Iraqis will do anything to get out.

SYRIA CLOSED ITS BORDER last October, as it promised it would. In the days leading up to the closure, as many as 20,000 Iraqis a day poured through the crossing at Al-Tanf, the buses and GMCs forming lines fifteen miles long. But now it was no longer possible for most Iraqis to travel back and forth. They could no longer cross over to renew their residency permits, without which they could be deported. Nor could they make a quick trip home in order to collect rent on a house or sell what property they had left to further fund their exile.

With the exodus stanched, the Iraqi government began a campaign to bring Iraqis home permanently. In November it posted notices throughout Sayeda Zainab offering a free bus ride to Baghdad and $800-more than eight months’ wages for an Iraqi laborer in Damascus-to every family that agreed to return. A reception for the new arrivals was held at a Baghdad hotel, and camera crews from around the world were invited to film them receiving their payments. In the United States, some saw this as a vindication of the surge strategy. Former White House policy aide David Rivkin, writing in the Los Angeles Times, proposed, for instance, that “by every objective measure of military performance, the United States’ surge of military forces into Iraq has been a great success” and that perhaps “the best testament to the surge’s success is that civilian refugees are beginning to return.” What went unreported was something one refugee, a highly placed academic, told me later. When she journeyed to Baghdad to visit her sick father on another bus a few days after the welcoming celebration, the driver had refused to drop off his passengers in the center of the city. He explained that when the first government-organized convoy had disembarked there, four families got into taxis and were immediately kidnapped.

The United Nations has warned that the situation in Iraq is not secure enough for a mass return, and most Iraqis agree. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society reported that fewer than 50,000 Iraqis returned from Syria between mid-September and the end of 2007. And a UNHCR survey found that 72 percent of Iraqi refugees returning to Iraq from Syria were doing so not because they thought conditions had improved but because they had lost their residency permits or simply run out of money. The UNHCR also reported that by January of this year the exodus had resumed: about 700 Iraqis were going home every day, but 1,200 more were passing them on the way out.

In Sayeda Zainab, the December cold ushered in the Muslim celebration of Eid, and few Iraqis could afford the traditional holiday lamb. One young shepherd followed me down the street, persistently trying to sell me one of his flock-just a small one, he suggested. Stories were circulating of young girls being sold as brides to rich men in the Gulf. An Iraqi widow was strangled by a family member in an “honor killing” for engaging in prostitution to support her children. A wealthy Iraqi man was kidnapped from his home in Damascus and forced to pay a $100,000 ransom, and three Iraqi ex-generals were discovered bound and strangled in an apartment in Sayeda Zainab. Another ex-general, a neighbor, fled as soon as the bodies were discovered, and no one knows where he went or where he will go next. _

* I have changed the names of the refugees interviewed for this story out of concern that their current location would be revealed to those who had threatened their lives or that their words might endanger relatives still inside Iraq. No other details have been changed.