Rafed, a refugee and aid worker, says UN officials are being pressured by Amman and Baghdad to stop registering Iraqi exiles, which gives them some measure of protection against forcible return. "There is an agreement to send us back, especially the intellectuals and professionals," says Rafed, who would not give his full name because he works closely with the UN. "This crisis is an embarrassment to both regimes."
Rafed is a linguist with a degree from the University of Baghdad. Before fleeing Iraq he translated for US forces and worked with internally displaced persons throughout the country. (The IDPs, totaling close to 2 million, are a widely overlooked byproduct of the war. More than one in ten Iraqis is now unmoored.) By May 2006 Rafed was getting death threats for "working with the unbelievers." He varied his route to work each day and carried a handgun for protection, but having lost four of his cousins to the insurgency, one by decapitation, he decided to flee.
A Shiite, Rafed acknowledges some discrimination under Saddam Hussein, but he is nostalgic for the stability of the late dictator's rule. Before the US invasion, Rafed was engaged to a Sunni girl, but the relationship crumbled under pressure from both families. Stress has made him a diabetic, he says.
Like many of his fellow exiles, Rafed blames foreign elements for the conflict: Salafists (Sunni extremists) from Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, agents from Iran and, of course, the United States. It was the Americans under viceroy Paul Bremer, the refugees say, who established a confessional style of government, with political parties defined by sect and ethnicity. "The Salafists started executing Shiites," says Rafed, "and then the Mahdi Army began to retaliate. Then, after the 2005 elections, the Sunnis felt threatened and abandoned politics and entered the insurgency. It was 90 percent political."
Some also blame Jordan's king, Abdullah II. In December 2004 the king warned of a "Shiite crescent" raking across the Arab world from its Persian pivot. Coming from a monarchy with a reputation as America's handmaiden--Abdullah's father, King Hussein, was on the CIA's payroll--Abdullah's remark was widely received as a proxy war whoop aimed at Iran and was quickly repeated by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Not long afterward, reports circulated that Iranian agents were proselytizing in Jordan's impoverished south, provoking a démarche from Amman. Earlier this year, a Jordanian cleric during Friday prayers condemned Shiites as apostates, and parents reported that teachers were lecturing students about the evils of Shiism. In an apparent move to cool things down, Abdullah invited a Shiite imam to preach at the King Hussein Mosque, a first for Jordan.
Having dutifully channeled for Washington, America's man in Amman was clearly in over his head. "When you have teachers condemning Shiites in class, that's bad," says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "When immigration officials are asking if visitors are Shiite or Sunni at the airport, that's bad. And when clerics are calling for violence against Shiites, that's bad too, particularly when you consider that clerics are controlled by the government."
In contrast with Jordan, Syria continues to welcome Iraq's dispossessed. In part, that's because Damascus has the resources to accommodate them. Unlike Jordan, the country is endowed with water and oil and a population more than three times that of its smaller neighbor to the south. Damascus also still prides itself on being the fountainhead of Arab nationalism and as a haven for refugees and dissident groups.
Such conceit is not cost-free. Syria too is stalked by ethnic and sectarian tensions, with a restive Kurdish minority and a majority Sunni population ruled by the Assad family dictatorship. President Bashar al-Assad is clearly betting that his authority is sound enough for him to play the role of beneficent sheik. For now, at least, it appears to be a safe wager. The Americans are pinned down in Iraq, and Syria is riding the crest of an economic boom with the unwitting help of Washington. In December 2003 the United States imposed economic sanctions on Damascus for assisting militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but as US Treasury officials cracked down on Syrian accounts held overseas, depositors simply repatriated their funds. The result was a liquidity glut that irrigated an economy long parched for capital.