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The Iraq war has exiled, displaced, or made homeless one-fifth of Iraqis.

When we net out the costs and benefits of Mr. Bush's war, we must give great weight to the terrible toll it has taken on Iraqi civilians of all religions, the educated middle class, and the ability of Iraqi society and government to function. The refugees also create great political problems in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordon, and throughout the Middle East. From They Fled from Our War, a NYRB review by Alisa Roth and Hugh Eakin of Deborah Amos' Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East:

The flight of Iraqis since the 2003 invasion ranks as the largest human displacement in the Middle East since 1948. Precise numbers are hard to come by: overwhelmingly, the refugees have fled from and to large urban areas. Many are fearful of making themselves known. But according to estimates by the UN and human rights organizations, over one million Iraqis have sought refuge in Syria, and some 500,000 in Jordan, where Amman’s population has swelled by as much as a third as a result. Several hundred thousand more are dispersed elsewhere in the region, including Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Another 100,000 have paid large sums to smuggle themselves into Europe, where they have placed severe stress on asylum courts in countries like Germany and Sweden.

These figures do not include the more than two million Iraqis who have been displaced within Iraq. According to a March 17 report by Refugees International, half a million Iraqis who fled their homes are now squatting in slums around Baghdad and other cities:

These people have no title to the land. Many fear returning to their original homes…. The settlements all lack basic services, including water, sanitation, and electricity, and are built in precarious places—under bridges, alongside railroad tracks, and amongst garbage dumps.

Counting both internal and external refugees, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 5 million of Iraq’s population of 24 million have been uprooted during the conflict—nearly twice the number of Sudanese displaced in Darfur.

This human upheaval has transformed Iraqi society. In her new book, Eclipse of the Sunnis, Deborah Amos, a correspondent for National Public Radio, sees the outflow of Iraqis as part of a long-term shift from Sunni to Shia dominance in Iraq. Since over half of those who have left are believed to be Sunnis, Amos draws a direct connection between the refugees and the common perception that, as she put it in a recent interview with Terry Gross, “the Shiites had won, the Sunnis had lost, and it was the Sunnis who were being driven out.” Adding large numbers of Iraqis to local populations from Damascus to Amman to Beirut, this exodus has caused what Amos calls “a ripple of consequences across all Sunni communities in the Middle East.” Jordan and Syria, she notes, complain that the Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki has failed to provide support for the exiles, while Baghdad accuses its neighbors of harboring Iraqi insurgents.

Yet the exile population includes tens of thousands of Shias as well. And proportionally, the conflict has had even greater consequences for other groups: Christians and smaller minorities, families of mixed backgrounds, and especially members of the country’s urban elite—regardless of sectarian identification. “One of the characteristics of Iraq’s civil war,” the International Crisis Group reported in 2008,

has been the extent to which the better educated have been targeted by militia leaders from all confessional groups—including their own…. Ironically—and tragically—large segments of the middle class in which so many hopes were invested at the dawn of the occupation now reside abroad.

. . . .

Meanwhile, Iraq’s neighbors are losing patience. With US government resources stretched by the economic crisis and the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has provided only a fraction of the $2 billion in refugee aid promised to host governments in the Middle East. Iraq itself has been far less generous, despite sizable revenues from oil. For their part, humanitarian groups worry that when US troops begin to go home this summer, there will be even less reason to devote political capital to helping refugees. What was once a middle-class society without democracy may, for some time to come, be a democracy without a middle class. For talented Iraqis now scattered around the world, this would amount to a double betrayal: abandoned in their own country by the American and other forces that were supposed to give them a central place in a new Iraq, they now risk being abandoned again outside it.

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Reader Comments (1)

In the absence of previous oil sale leverage against Turkey, Iraq has lost 1/2 of its prewar share of water from the Tigris Euphrates, its major freshwater supply. We have done nothing to prevent this and Iraq has gone from being a net exporter of agricultural produce to a net importer of 90% of its food. Further, the loss of agricultural water has caused farm to urban migration with implications for destabilization. Sandstorms, which used to occur about 8 days a year now occur on as many as 30 days, some lasting as long as 8 days at a time as land is deserted. The long term damage is beyond repair and as climate change intensifies the problems the suffering will be even more terrible with potentially unmanageable repercussions for all of us.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

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