BAGHDAD—Fleeing sectarian killings, retiree Abu Mohammed left his Baghdad home six years ago with his wife and three adult children—relocating, like hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis, to Syria.
A week ago, the 68-year-old refugee reluctantly returned to his old neighborhood here, fearing similar violence would engulf Syria.
ReuterIn Baghdad on Feb. 7, Iraqis unload belongings from a bus from Syria. Many families who fledregion. Most fled the upheaval and sectarian strife ushered in after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.
Syria is home to an estimated one million Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers, by far the largest such contingent in the region. Most fled the upheaval and sectarian strife ushered in after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.
Many of these Iraqis now face a new dilemma: risk being caught in a conflict that increasingly resembles the one they escaped, or come home to a still-unstable Iraq.
Returning Iraqis say Syria's conflict is increasingly organizing itself along sectarian lines—largely between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam, and the opposition, drawn largely from the country's Sunni majority.
On Friday, Syrian forces continued to shell Homs, the Associated Press cited activists and rights groups as saying, bringing the siege to the two-week mark. Tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets from Deraa in the south to Aleppo and Idlib in the north and Deir el-Zour in the east to areas around Damascus, the AP reported activists as saying. Security forces opened fire on some protests, it cited local activists as saying.
The ongoing bloodletting stood as a rebuke to the latest international effort to rein in the violence. On Thursday, members of the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned Mr. Assad's regime for human-rights violations and called on him to step aside. On Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the U.N.'s nonbinding resolution wasn't enough.
"I'm not satisfied that we are taking all the action we can," he said during a news conference in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "What is happening in Syria is appalling."
Fears are growing that Syria's conflict is exposing fresh Sunni-Shiite rancor across the Mideast.
In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government has professed neutrality in Syria's conflict. But members of the Syrian opposition have accused Mr. Maliki of turning a blind eye to the passage of Iraqi Shiite militiamen, as well as Iranian fighters and arms, through Iraq to Syria to bolster Mr. Assad. Iraqi officials deny this, and on Thursday Iraq backed the U.N.'s resolution against Syria.
Yet the claims provide fodder for Arab satellite channels, funded by or based in Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which is opposed to both Messrs. Assad and Maliki. One such channel, al-Majd, is usually dedicated to religious programs, but is now airing calls for Jihad against the Syrian regime and "apostate" Shiites in general.
Some Sunnis in Iraq, meanwhile, say they are arming opponents of Mr. Assad. One Sunni tribal leader from Anbar province, which borders Syria, said in an interview that there is "systematic smuggling of weapons to Syria" to opponents of Mr. Assad's regime.
His assertions couldn't be independently verified but the sentiments dovetail with those in his heavily armed Sunni province: On Friday, several hundred people rallied in the city of Fallujah, the latest demonstrations in Iraq in support of the Syrian opposition.
Iraqis returning from Syria cite a new environment of hatred and incitement toward Shiites.
An Iraqi Christian woman, returning to Baghdad last month with her son after almost nine years in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, says anti-Assad fighters stopped their bus near the flash point city of Idlib. The fighters had erected checkpoints and set tires ablaze in sections of a main highway, she said, and demanded to know if the Iraqi passengers on board were Sunni or Shiite.
The Shiites onboard were afraid, she said. "The driver told [the gunmen] we're all Sunnis," she said.
A Baghdad-based operator of an Iraq-Syria coach bus service estimated that about two out of every five families traveling to Iraq are coming back for good. Anbar's deputy governor and other Iraqi officials said they are erecting a camp near Syria's border to deal with any possible "exodus of Iraqis" from the country.
Some 112,000 Iraqis in Syria have been registered as refugees to seek assistance in relocating, primarily to the West, according to Andrew Harper, a senior official with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Over the past year alone, he said, his organization closed the books on 40,000 cases of these Iraqi families as the majority of them opted for what he called "premature return" to Iraq.
An additional 19,000 Syria-based Iraqis have had their asylum and emigration applications process delayed because of the security situation there, the UNHCR says. Some Iraqis say they can't return home because they are still traumatized by their suffering or fear assassination or arrest for having held senior positions in Saddam's regime.
"I told my Syrian friends, 'Do not follow in our footsteps, you'll regret it if you lose Bashar,' " says Iman Kadhim, an Iraqi teacher and mother of three who returned to Baghdad last week.
Since the toppling of Mr. Hussein's regime, Syria had an open-door policy for Iraqis—both refugees and those seeking asylum in third countries—allowing them access to services such as education and health care.
One of the Iraqis to move there was Abu Mohammed, a Sunni who left his predominantly Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad in 2006 with his wife and three grown children. Residents say the area, Ghazaliya, was a base for Sunni militants, some linked to al Qaeda, who fought U.S. troops, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and Shiite militias.
Abu Mohammed, a retiree who used his nickname and declined to identify his former profession, chose a tranquil resort town on the outskirts of Damascus, called Zabadani.
Syria's standoff turned his last days there into an ordeal of power cuts and lack of fuel. Iraqis in Zabadani were increasingly under pressure to take sides between the pro-Assad army units besieging the town and the anti-Assad fighters controlling its center, he said.
This month, he said, a gunman at an opposition checkpoint ordered him to say a prayer cursing Mr. Assad. "I pretended I was hard of hearing," he said. "We're neutral. The Syrian people were kind to us, and the Syrian government sheltered us."
Back in Ghazaliya, he found what resembled a security ghetto, ringed by giant blast walls and Iraqi army checkpoints. The area and other former hot spots began to turn the corner with the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign in 2008. Following the end of the U.S. military mission in Iraq in December, a fragile peace hangs over the neighborhood.
"Nobody has suffered like the Iraqi people," Abu Mohammed said, citing Ghazaliya's torn social fabric and lamenting that his Shiite neighbors are forever gone. "This should be a cautionary tale for the Syrians."