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A Hotbed of Hope 



AMMAN, JORDAN, JULY 30

I don’t bother to check the weather. What would be the purpose? Hot is hot. I’ve been told it will be even hotter once I get to Iraq. The streets wind and plow their way up and down the many hills that make up Amman, as my taxi driver attempts to find the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UN-HCR) Iraq Operation. It is my last day in Jordan before flying to Sulaimaniyeh. I’ve just come from picking up my Syrian visa from their embassy, which was very easy to find. My last task of the day is to gather information about the internally displaced Iraqis, and as my driver makes one phone call, takes another series of turns, and makes yet another phone call, I sense this is not his usual terrain. We pull onto a tree-lined dead-end city street wall-to-wall with modern buildings and I spy the UNHCR sign—the only identifying insignia visible on the nondescript office building. My driver, oblivious, begins to make a U-turn as I hand him the fare and hop out.

Although it is four years to the month that the UN headquarters in Baghdad was destroyed by a suicide bomber driving a cement truck loaded with explosives, killing 23 people and injuring over 100, the memory is still fresh among UN officials throughout the Middle East. Security greets me even before I enter the building, where, once inside its cooling shade, I soon hear the clacking of high heels on tile floors. Anita Raman, associate reporting officer for the UNHCR Iraq Operation, appears and takes me to her office. Her eyes are obscured by huge dark sunglasses, à la Jackie Onassis, which offer protection from the midday sun streaming in the windows next to her desk. She is dressed in a flowing sleeveless black-and-white chiff on dress, showing more skin than I am used to in this repressed part of the world, where many women glide to and fro swathed head to toe in synthetic heat-retaining fibers. I have been told to wear shirts that cover my elbows, especially when going to interviews, and have come to conclude that the men here must be so lacking in self-control that for a woman to reveal more could cause her harm. And yet, I think to myself as I don my own sunglasses—the glare literally hurting my eyes—here is this modern woman modeling freedom to my newly repressed
and sweltering self.

“We do have a presence in Sulaimaniyeh, and compounds in Baghdad and Erbil,” says Raman. “There has been significant growth in IDP numbers, especially in Sulaimaniyeh, near the Diyala borders.” IDP stands for “internally displaced persons,” the term used for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have had to flee their homes due to the sectarian violence unleashed by what Raman calls “a mixture of ethnoreligious factional and political violence.”

With Baquba as its capital, Diyala is one of the 18 governorates that make up Iraq. It connects the governorate of Sulaimaniyeh with that of Baghdad, and is considered a “Little Iraq”—a microcosm of the country, consisting of a Shiite-dominated provincial government and security forces (due to its majority Sunni population sitting out the elections), a healthy Kurdish presence on its northern border with Sulaimaniyeh, and a heavy concentration of al-Qaeda operatives. A minimal US troop presence in 2006, combined with the unintended consequence of surge efforts that has seen both Sunnis and al-Qaeda forces flee Baghdad for Diyala, has turned the governorate into one of Iraq’s major hotspots and caused even more IDP movement—this time extending farther north into cities within the three northern governorates of Kurdistan that, according to Raman, “form the nucleus of the IDP communities.”

“Most of the IDPs in the north are ‘scattered urban,’” says Raman. “Because of the restrictions on entry, a significant proportion of the IDPs are people from central or southern Iraq who own property inside the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government area].” Others came for employment reasons. “The displaced tend to gravitate toward urban centers. However, with the volume of displacement throughout Iraq and within the north, there have been a number of camps for the newly displaced rising throughout the country. The camps are, in some instances, just spontaneous settlements, which are receiving aid distribution but are not yet established as camps along international standards.”


A COUNTRY ON THE MOVE
Trying to pin down numbers of the displaced opens a virtual Pandora’s box of complexities as to IDP issues within Iraq in general. To begin with, there are pre–February 2006 IDPs and post–February 2006 IDPs. On February 22, 2006—the apparent dividing line in time—the golden dome of Samarra’s al-Askari mosque was severely damaged in a bombing attack. Built in 944, the mosque is considered one of the most revered Shiite shrines in the world. A second bombing attack in June 2007 destroyed its twin minarets and clock tower. But it was that first attack, along with the subsequent military operations, that marked an intense escalation in sectarian violence, pitting Shiite groups who had long held back against the rampages against them by Saddam-affiliated Sunni groups. Increases in anti-insurgency, counterinsurgency, and criminal activities also contributed to high levels of widespread violence and insecurity not seen before the February 2006 bombings.

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