The March 7 election is a test of the permanence of the division between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
March 5 2010 7:12 AM

Will the Exiles Return to Iraq?

Sunday's election is a test of the permanence of the division between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites.

Also in Slate, Anna Husarska has a slide show  looking at the everyday lives of Iraqi refugees in Jordan.

Nuri al-Maliki. Click image to expand.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki 

As Iraqis prepare for parliamentary elections on March 7, election fever has been rising in a seemingly unlikely place: Damascus, Syria. Syria is a haven for the largest community of Iraqi exiles, and many of them say they will cast their ballots far from home.

"Yes, I will vote," Omar Fadhil insisted when I met him in his shabby apartment in Damascus. A Sunni Arab, he fled to Syria last year after closing his music shop in Baghdad when militants threatened to blow it up. "Those in Iraq don't represent the real Iraqis, the artists and the scholars," he maintained. The overwhelming majority of exiles in Syria, more than 70 percent, are professionals and technocrats from Baghdad.


Under a new election law, the externally displaced have voting power, because their vote counts as if they were living in their home province. Voter registration began this week; an Iraqi passport counts as proof of citizenship, but so does a U.N. refugee registration card. Iraq's electoral commission expects as many as 180,000 exiles to cast ballots in 23 voting centers across Syria, and Iraq's Sunni politicians are courting the exile vote.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi exiles scattered across the region are connected to Iraq through chat rooms, cell phones, Web cameras, and satellite television, part of a virtual Iraq that exists beyond borders. While this crucial election is a test of Iraq's fragile democracy and of the potential for long-term stability, its outcome may also determine whether Iraqis remain in exile as a destabilizing population in the region or return home to help rebuild the country. Political reconciliation can happen only if Sunnis feel they have a fair share of power. The exiles will judge the election outcome by what it reveals about the strength of the sectarian fault lines that contributed to the exodus and displacement of 20 percent of the pre-war population.

Despite an overall reduction in violence in Iraq, one statistic is troubling and barely changed: According to the latest U.S. government report, few of the 2 million Iraqis who fled the country from 2004 to 2008 have returned. An estimated 60 percent of the refugees are Sunni Arabs; approximately 15 percent are Iraqi Christians. Their departure represents a dramatic demographic alteration in Iraq, yet the sectarian nature of the exodus has been largely overlooked. This shifting population is a huge loss to Iraq, a vast problem to neighboring governments, a collective tragedy for many caught up in it, and a significant indicator of the future health, stability, and viability of Iraq and the Middle East. Most in the exile population have never sought refugee status with the United Nations. Indeed, fewer than 10 percent have applied to be considered for resettlement to the United States, Europe, or Australia, which suggests the overwhelming majority still hope to return to Iraq and are waiting for some indication that they are welcome there. So far, the signals from the election campaign have not been positive.

Exiles are glued to satellite channels that beam campaign ads and interviews inside and outside Iraq, but they have missed the great campaign give away inside the country. With no laws to limit how political parties raise and spend money, there seems to be no limit or shame in showering voters with pricey gifts. The prime minister gives out autographed pistols, other candidates distribute frozen chickens, fuel oil, and imported Chinese sports shoes. A recent e-mail, from an Iraqi journalist in Basra, describes the scene in the south. The subject line is "Tribal elders get fat," and it continues, "Restaurants and hotels are filled with tribal elders where candidates invite them for lunch every day. The comparison between tribal clothes before the electoral campaign and after, we notice big difference. The tribal elders wear trendy clothes, their pockets full of money and use modern mobiles."

A year ago, in the provincial elections, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition won a majority on a nationalist agenda, campaigning on the themes of Iraqi unity, good governance, and improved services. At the time, Maliki courted Sunni politicians as well as Sunni votes, and his success seemed to indicate that the sectarian divide was closing, if not healing. Iraqi exiles, especially in the Sunni community, noted the change and, as a result, the exiles became more transient: One member of the family would be sent back to Baghdad to collect pensions, back pay, or to work for a few months to support the extended family exiled in Syria. These were the scouts for a larger movement home. But sectarian tensions are on the rise again as Shiite politicians stir populist fears of the return of the outlawed Baath Party that ruled the country in Saddam's day.

Subtly equating Baathist with Sunni, appears to be a political strategy to convince the majority Shiites to vote out of fear rather than interest. The decision by a Shiite-controlled official body to ban more than 500 candidates, many of them Sunnis, on often sketchy charges of links to the outlawed Baath Party stirred fears in the larger Sunni community that the real motive was to marginalize them politically. Prime Minister Maliki ditched his nationalist message as the campaign heated up. Fighting to keep his job against a competing Shiite political bloc, Maliki has embraced a more sectarian campaign agenda, alienating Sunni voters and nationalists who want an end to sectarian politics.

Iraqis say they are fed up with sectarianism, a conflict that has divided neighborhoods and families. The exiles are exhausted by a schism that forced their departure. Many live in desperate conditions, with no hope of work or integration, their children largely outside the education system. Internally, Iraq still has more than 2 million displaced citizens, a legacy of the all-out war of Sunni against Shiite. In Anbar, a predominantly Sunni province, 62 percent of those driven out are Shiites, and only about 1 percent of the people who left have returned. In the largely Shiite southern provinces, the Sunnis were driven out and are unlikely to return. The Iraqi agency that surveys displaced people reports that the majority may not wish to return to their homes of origin, sealing geographic divisions.

The election is a key moment for Iraq, a measure of where the country is headed as the country's leaders struggle to end the violence and create stability ahead of the U.S. withdrawal later this year. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill summed up the trial ahead: "The real test of democracy is not so much the behavior of the winners; it will be the behavior of the losers." There can be no stability without political reconciliation and the exiles' return. They are in daily contact with their families, waiting for word that is time to come back. The rest of the region is waiting, too.

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Deborah Amos is a correspondent for NPR. She reports from the Middle East.



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