Displaced Iraqis Turn to Militias for Help

There are nearly 3 million internally displaced people in Iraq ,and the government has done little to help them. A new report by Refugees International indicates militias, like the one loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, are stepping in to help displaced communities. The militias also find this a fertile recruiting field.

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This report begins with two hard facts: There are an estimated 2.7 million internally displaced people in Iraq, and little is being done to help them. So they get whatever help they can from Iraq's militias. A new report by the non-governmental organization Refugees International describes armed groups not necessarily friendly to the United States making new friends.

The Mahdi army, the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has been helping displaced communities, and it's also been finding them fertile recruiting grounds. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: His daughter is fretful. Forty-year-old Yeis Houdair Daoud(ph) tries to soothe her, but it's hot inside the bombed-out rooms where the family makes its home, and the child only calms down when he puts a bottle in her mouth.

Daoud, a Shiite, has been squatting in this abandoned Air Force headquarters for two years now since he was driven out of his south Baghdad neighborhood by Sunni insurgents.

Mr. YEIS HOUDAIR DAOUD: (Through translator) All my neighbors left the area. Some of them were killed. Others had their houses burned. I moved here because we have no other place to be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like many of the estimated 2.7 million internally displaced Iraqis, he says he's had no support from the Iraqi government during all of his ordeal. Instead, a member of Moqtada al-Sadr's vast humanitarian network stepped in with an offer of help.

Mr. DAOUD: (Through translator) He came to me and told us to give him our papers, and he told me after registering us that the Sadr office would give me rations and salary and clothes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Other IDPs here say the Sadr office has distributed meat and clothing to the community on several occasions. According to the new report by Refugees International, the largest provider of aid and social services in Iraq is now the Sadr office and its Mahdi army militia.

But the Mahdi army is not alone. Both Shiite and Sunni militias are stepping into the vacuum left by the Iraqi state. The militias, the report says, quote, "are improving their local base of support by providing social services in the neighborhoods and the towns they control."

Neil Rosen co-authored the study. He spoke to NPR by phone from Beirut.

Mr. NEIL ROSEN (Refugees International): The government is doing absolutely nothing in this case. And, of course, these aren't only NGOs. These are militias, military organizations who've been fighting each other, who've been fighting the government, who've been fighting the Americans, who are implicated in abuses of civilians, expelling civilians they don't like. So you're not exactly dealing with reliable organizations with overwhelming legitimacy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The militias have their own agendas, Rosen says, and they're also increasingly recruiting from the dispossessed. Many of the internally displaced have been deeply traumatized by their experiences and are filled with rage. Refugees International says it's become a particular problem in Sunni areas of Baghdad where U.S.-funded Sunni paramilitary groups from the awakening movement operate.

Mr. ROSEN: Most of them have been complaining that the displaced Iraqis who've joined the awakening groups tend to be more aggressive, and then they're not loyal to the notion of the community. They are much more angry. They might not be as willing to accept that the original happened, which is the Shias would return to their homes. So it is a concern when these militias somehow become entrenched.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The report warns that the IDP crisis is the most under-recognized and yet the most urgent facing Iraq right now.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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