Iraq’s Ticking Time Bomb: The Right Of Return For Refugees

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a national security consultant at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

The big news out of the new Refugees International study is the support Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has gained through providing aid to internally displaced Iraqis. American commanders on the ground recognize this, and are planning another wave of public works projects in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood to try and break this relationship.

However, Sadr’s not the whole story. Sunni militias — known as sahwa or awakening groups — have taken on the same role in majority Sunni neighborhoods. Many of these militias — called “Sons of Iraq” or “Concerned Local Citizens”- receive money from the U.S. military. According to the authors:

Sunni militias also handle the distribution of key items such as heating gas. As Sunnis in Baghdad get virtually no electricity or other services from the government, they rely on local militias and warlords to secure their areas and manage what services they can obtain.

Moreover, recently displaced Sunnis are joining these theoretically local militias. These displaced militiamen are “more aggressive and radical” than locally recruited fighters. Given the mistrust of both the Iraqi government and Shi’a Arabs that exists among local fighters, the injection of even more radical displaced fighters increases the combustibility of an already delicate arrangement.


The problem of both Shi’a and Sunni militia political control over various neighborhoods is only the tip of the displaced persons iceberg. Lurking beneath the surface is the even bigger political quandary of refugee return.

If and when Iraq’s internally displaced and refugee populations return, they will be confronted with a redrawn sectarian map. Many Iraqis who were driven from their homes due to sectarian violence will return to see their homes occupied by squatters of the opposite sect, who have been “resettled” by a local militia. The small number of refugees that returned to Iraq from Syria last year (primarily due to a lack of resources) have instead become internally displaced.

Without an official system to adjudicate property claims of refugees, many displaced Iraqis turn to sectarian militias. As a result, Iraq’s internal sectarian divisions have hardened.

Iraq’s refugee and internal displacement problem isn’t simply a humanitarian or moral issue; it’s ticking political time-bomb that threatens to renew sectarian violence if not adequately addressed soon.