Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Anbar's Displaced Stay Away

Shia families forced to leave Sunni-majority province remain reluctant to return.
By Basim al-Shara

Jabbar Salman, 47, lives with his four family members in a small house in the al-Rashad neighborhood close to the largely Shia Sadr City, an east Baghdad suburb.

They have been there since they were forced to flee their spacious home in Anbar province, in western Iraq, in February 2006.

According to Salman, gunmen besieged his house, ordering him and his family to leave within three hours or they would be killed.

“Some of the gunmen were my neighbours. They allowed us to carry our personal things only; we were concerned about our lives rather than about our property,” he said.

While Salman is upset that he has to live in cramped conditions, he said he cannot go back to Anbar. “I won’t return because I fear members of my family might be killed by the Sahawat,” he said.

Sahawat is a reference to awakening councils – made up of members of Sunni tribes who allied with the Americans after turning their backs on al-Qaeda.

He says that despite the loss of his house, he feels comfortable among members of his immediate and extended family, “I live in Sadr City close to my brothers and relatives – this is my utmost relief.”

Salman explained that all his relatives in Anbar were expelled in 2006 and 2007. He said they all chose to go to Sadr City because they had originally lived there, and because the security was better compared to other places in Baghdad.

“I decided to sell my house to permanently settle in Sadr City, because I can no longer live with Sunni,” he said.

On September 1, American forces handed control of Anbar back to the Iraqis.

The transfer of the province – which was the centre of the Sunni insurgency, and where al-Qaeda in Iraq originated – was hailed as an important milestone in the United States plan to put central government back in charge of the country’s provinces.

It was also taken by many as evidence that the once restive province is now at peace.

Yet in spite of this, many of those forced to leave during the insurgency, which peaked in 2006, are not keen to return.

A spokesperson for the Sadr Office – a bureau opened by Shia radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to look after Shia affairs and find homes for displaced families – said that most of the Shia forced out of Anbar came to Sadr City because they were originally from there.

They left for Anbar during the Seventies and Eighties because there were good work opportunities there, he said.

Unlike Salman, Alaa Omran, 40, lost a family member when he was expelled from his home in Anbar.

Omran, who now lives on the outskirts of Sadr City, said that his mother died of a heart attack when gunmen besieged his house in Fallujah in February 2006, ordering the family to leave.

Members of his family were terrified, thinking they were all going to be killed – his mother could not bear it, he said.

“They all had weapons. One of them was a friend of mine. He prevented them from killing us. They allowed us to leave with the body of my mother,” he said.

Omran said that it would be difficult for the family to live there again.

“Psychologically, we cannot live in a place from which we forced to leave, and where we witnessed my mother's death,” he said.

Omran sold his house in Fallujah last year.

“My life in Fallujah became part of the past, and my new life is here in Sadr City,” he said.

After renting a house for the last two years, he has now bought a new home.

“My brothers and I live peacefully here, we fear no threat from Sunni [militias] any more,” he said.

Raed Saeed, 30, said that al-Qaeda gunmen forced his family from their home in Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, in May 2005.

They killed his father, but he managed to escape, and a neighbour intervened to save his other relatives, he said.

Saeed said that he and his family lost all their possessions when they were kicked out.

“We came to Sadr City owning nothing but our clothes,” he said. “The Sadr Office rented us a house and gave us a monthly financial allowance.”

Saeed does not seek revenge for the death of his father. His sole desire now, he said, is to provide a decent life for his mother and brothers.

He said he now hawks cigarettes and soft drinks, which makes him enough money to look after his family.

Although the Sadr City authorities would like the displaced families to return to Anbar, few are reported to have done so – although this is contested by some Anbar politicians.

According to Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Sulaiman, a Sunni tribal chief and a leading member of the Anbar Awakening Council, the Baghdad government was not encouraging expelled Shia to go back to the province, and had failed to provide the authorities there with the means to secure their safe return.

He claimed that there were elements in the Baghdad government who wanted Anbar to remain purely Sunni. “They want Anbar and other provinces to be of one sect, in order to facilitate their plans to establish a federal system in Iraq,” he said.

Al-Sulaiman accused some of the Shia families who prefer to stay in Baghdad of exaggerating the dangers they face in Anbar. “[They] do not want to return because they’re accustomed to a special life in Baghdad,” he said.

He said he would do his best to try to bring about the return of those who wish to, “I will coordinate with some tribal leaders to organise [this].”

But Ahmed al-Alwani, a member of parliament with the largely Sunni Iraqi Accord Front from Anbar, said that many Shia families had gone back, particularly to Fallujah.

“They returned after the improvement of the security situation. They live there peacefully,” he said.

Alwani said there were no official statistics on the number of people displaced from Anbar, but insisted that there couldn’t have been many because most of the province’s population is Sunni.

He said that Fallujah residents were keeping an eye on houses and flats belonging to displaced Shia families.

“The Shia families can come again to live there. They will find their houses as they left them,” said Alwani.

He said that his party had given financial support to those Shia families returning to Ramadi and other cities neighbouring Anbar province, “[We helped to provide for] the returning Shia families because they constitute a very important part of the province.”

Alwani denied claims that the Anbar provincial council had banned Shia families from going back, “Even if some members of the council have banned the Shia families, the tribes of Anbar would oblige them to receive those families,” he said.

Basim al-Shara is an IWPR-trained journalist.

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