TO GO WITH STORY BY MARC BASTIANAn Iraqi Shiite boy sits outside a tent being used to house homeless Shiite families in the village of Khan Bani Saad near Baquba in Diyala province on July 21, 2008. Many Shiite Iraqis, after fleeing brutal sectarian clashes in the villages and towns of the war torn Diyala province, are now returning to find the homes they left behind in ruins. AFP PHOTO/ALI YUSSEF (Photo credit should read ALI YUSSEF/AFP/Getty Images)
Niqash met a number of displaced people who said they are hesitant about returning to their homes out of fear of an al-Qaeda offensive following the U.S military drawback.
Umm Shahd, who was forced out of her home in Kanaan by armed groups, says that she will only return once it is clear that government forces are able to maintain security.
Already the province, which has long been a centre of insurgency activity, has seen an upturn in violence as the June 30 date approaches.
"We’ve started receiving death threats and a number of returnee and tribal sheikhs were killed and their children kidnapped," said Sheikh Najm al-Fadl, a former leader of the Iraqi resistance who subsequently turned against al-Qaeda.
Al-Fadl says he now lives in daily fear for his life but that he will not succumb to al-Qaeda threats and that the province will not fall, once more, under the hold of militants.
Sitting in his tribe’s guesthouse al-Fadl waved his cane aggressively, promising harsh retribution against al-Qaeda if they attack any families living under his protection in Bahraz neighbourhood.
"You are now under our protection and no one can harm you," the Sheikh told a gathering of families.
Three years ago, as a wave of al-Qaeda inspired sectarian violence swept through Diyala, thousands of families fled their homes to escape the brutality of armed groups. Official statistics published by the local administration say that 26,700 people fled Diyala but unofficial statistics suggest the number could be as high as 50,000.
Yet, on the back of the relative stability achieved in the province following Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ‘Bashaer al-Khair’ military operation, launched in July 2008, a number of families returned to the province.
“Security achievements have encouraged hundreds of families to return,” said Major-General Abdul-Hussein al-Shammari, Diyala Province Police Chief. “Iraqi security forces have imposed a state of stability.
Even so, fears of a militant revival continue to swirl, preventing many others from returning home. While, there has been some talk of allowing U.S troops to remain in Diyala beyond the June deadline, Diyala Governor Abdel-Nasir al-Muntasirbillah recently confirmed that this will not be the case.
Al-Shammari says that Iraqi security forces are ready to maintain local security. “We have 21,000 fighters ready to impose security and peace everywhere including the hot areas. The battles we’ve fought in the past years have proved the strength and courage of our forces.”
For those that do return, the threat of renewed violence is accompanied by the reality of destruction that has overwhelmed the province in recent years.
Mamoud al-Oubedi, one returnee, sighed with desperation as he surveyed the rubble of his home and orchard in al-Khales. “All I have now is ruins of a house and an orchard of coal," he told Niqash despondently.
According to Captain Falah al-Tamimi, a local security officer, "hundreds of houses taken over by armed groups were completely burnt down and it is difficult for families to settle down under such circumstances.”
The provincial administration has now announced the formation of five committees across five districts (Baakouba, al-Khales, al-Miqdadiyah, Khankin and Baldroz) to investigate claims of destruction and award compensation. Local sources say that 37.5 billion Iraqi dinars (approximately US $32 million) have been set aside for the task.
Al-Muntasirbillah, the governor, is hopeful that the money, in combination with improved security guaranteed by a stronger government military presence, will encourage more displaced families to return home.
The governor has promised to move quickly. We will “prepare the right atmosphere for returning and will quickly use money reserved for compensation,” he said.