BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi security forces began a push on Tuesday to evict people squatting in Baghdad homes that were abandoned by residents fleeing sectarian violence, a military spokesman said.
Despite a sharp drop in violence over the past year, some 2.8 million people are displaced within Iraq, statistics from the International Organization for Migration show.
Over half of them have fled their homes since February 2006, when the bombing of a revered Shi’ite shrine in Samarra triggered a wave of sectarian bloodletting.
Many Iraqis now live in separate Sunni and Shi’ite enclaves, and the government is keen to re-establish mixed neighborhoods as part of efforts to encourage sectarian reconciliation.
A statement from Major-General Qassim Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military in Baghdad, said security forces had begun to carry out orders to evict squatters.
“The issue of squatters … is the main obstacle delaying the returning of displaced families to their houses in Baghdad”, Tahseen al-Sheikhli, civilian spokesman for security operations in Baghdad, told Reuters.
More than 60 percent of internally displaced Iraqis are from Baghdad. The U.N. refugee agency estimates two million Iraqi refugees are living abroad, mostly in Jordan and Syria.
A drop in violence to four-year lows has encouraged some Iraqis to return home, only to find their homes occupied. Some squatters have no home to return to.
“I’m the wife of a martyr, and these are my children. Gunmen came into my home, killed my husband and destroyed my house,” said one woman, originally from the northern city of Diyala, who has been living in the Baghdad district of Hurriya.
“Am I supposed to live on the street?” she said, as her mother wailed in the background.
Squatters in Hurriya said they were given different deadlines for eviction depending on their circumstances.
Sheikhli said those who refused to leave would be tried under anti-terrorism laws.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in May said the government would spend $195 million on helping refugees resettle.