February 15, 2007
As part of its newly declared security crackdown to put an end to the relentless violence that threatens to divide the capital along sectarian lines, the Iraqi government has ordered the return of illegally seized houses of displaced families. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unveiled the long-awaited Baghdad security plan, dubbed 'Operation Imposing Law'. The plan involves US and Iraqi troops stepping up patrols in the capital and establishing new checkpoints. In a bid stop the sectarian bloodletting, the government said those who had occupied the homes of displaced families would be given 15 days to return the properties to the original owners or prove they had permission to be there.
Aid workers and analysts said the plan was hasty and would create more problems than it would solve. "It is impossible to achieve this goal - at least for the time being. You can't solve a problem by creating more problems. The government has to find places for those who are occupying such houses or ensure security in the neighbourhoods they have been displaced from to go back to their homes," said Mizaal Jassim Wasfi, a Baghdad-based independent political analyst. "This step is a premature one and the government can't achieve this without finding alternatives. On top of the alternatives it must also ensure security, at least in Baghdad, and this is unlikely to be achieved within 15 days. This will provoke more chaos and violence because they [the occupiers of abandoned houses] simply want safe places for their children and women," he added.
Sectarian violence in Iraq began escalating after the bombing of a revered Shia shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, on 22 February, 2006. Extremist Sunni Muslims were blamed for the attack. The attack spawned days and months of reprisal attacks and killings between the country's major Muslim sects, Sunnis and Shias, and led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from both sects to neighbourhoods where they are the majority. The thorny case of displaced families is widely seen as a major challenge to al-Maliki's government.
"Where should I go? Can the government curb the Shia militia in my neighbourhood and guarantee my family's safety there? If yes, I'll leave now," said Akram Baker Habib, a 33-year-old Sunni mathematics teacher who fled the Shia-dominated Hurriyah neighhbourhood in northern Baghdad two months ago to the Sunni-dominated Yarmouk area in western Baghdad. Al-Mahdi army, a powerful Shia militia led by the firebrand leader Muqtada al-Sadr, ordered Habib to leave the neighbourhood and go to a Sunni area. "They told me that they want to purge Hurriyah from Sunnis and that I asked for the help of Sunni politicians who led me to this house to protect my family from being in the street, but I don't know the owner of this house," Habib, a father of two children, added.
The Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS), the only aid agency working throughout the country, said that it had no figures for such displaced families was they normally do not register at their offices. But the NGO said it would monitor developments so it could provide humanitarian assistance to those in need. "Most of these families have moved from other places seeking security and some of these families have agreements with the [house] owners," Mazin Abdullah Salom, a spokesman for the IRCS in Baghdad, said.
More Information on Iraq's Humanitarian Crisis