The Iraqi Exodus
Nearly 2 million have fled, but that could be just a drop in the bucket
The gunman stood at the foot of his bed. "Are you al-Jaboury?" he yelled. It was 2 o'clock on a stifling July morning, and al-Jaboury had been sound asleep next to his wife. After hearing his name, the young Iraqi police officer didn't hesitate. Grabbing the gun he had been stashing under his pillow every night since he'd joined the police 18 months earlier, he shot the intruder in the throat. The gunman's accomplices all fled.
But the danger wasn't over. "I knew the insurgents would come back, and maybe they would blow up the whole house," al-Jaboury says. "My wife blamed me for joining the police. She said that I am a Sunni and that I know that the insurgents don't like this, and that I would get killed sooner or later." The next day, al-Jaboury left his wife, his daughter, and his home in the troubled Diyala province and took off in a neighbor's pickup truck, loaded with fruit, and headed for Syria. He had $300 in his pocket.
For the past few months, al-Jaboury has just been scraping by in a Damascus suburb packed with poor Iraqis. Back in Iraq, insurgents continue to threaten his wife, telling her that the only part of al-Jaboury they want back is his head. Today, al-Jaboury works in a small Syrian hotel, making $10 a day, plus room and board. "I am living a disgusting life now," he says, "and I can't take the idea of cleaning toilets after being a policeman cleaning society." His chief goal now: making enough money to rent an apartment to be able to send for his wife and child to join him in Syria. "I think," he says, "that will take a long time."
Like al-Jaboury, an average of 2,000 Iraqis a day are fleeing to Syriaand the numbers appear to be growing. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that at least 700,000 Iraqis have taken refuge in Syria, while an additional 700,000 or so are in Jordan. (Iraq's estimated population is 27 million.) Few of the refugees have any legal protections, leaving them hostage to the whims of local government officials and reluctant even to divulge their full names.
While some had fled during Saddam Hussein's reign, most have arrived since the U.S. invasion, desperate to escape the spiraling violence. The numbers jumped sharply after the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra last February that intensified Iraq's sectarian strife. With Iraq slipping toward an all-out civil war amid record numbers of civilians being killed each month, a UNHCR official warns that hundreds of thousands more Iraqis appear to be "teetering" on the brink of departure. Even U.S. officials, many of whom have previously downplayed refugee flows, now acknowledge they are increasingly concerned. "We do know the trend is growing," says a State Department official.
"Brain drain." The tide of refugees is just one of the more visible symptoms of the regional spillover from the chaos in Iraq. Amid concerns that the violence could eventually spread across the border, calls for a more regional approach to Iraq have been intensifying. The Iraq Study Group, created by the U.S. Congress to search for new policy options in Iraq and led by former Secretary of State James Baker, is set to release its keenly awaited report this week. One anticipated recommendation will call for the Bush administration to open a dialogue with Iran and Syria. President Bush was in Jordan last week to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, while Iraqi President Jalal Talabani made a high-profile visit to Iran.