When he saw the bodies of men and women left rotting in the streets of Damascus, Hassan Hadi knew that the sectarian violence he had fled Iraq to escape years ago had now come to Syria. Despairingly, he left his belongings and fled again, back home.
Hadi is one of at least 12,680 Iraqis who streamed back to their homeland the past month to escape the Syrian civil war. Most of them are Iraqi Shiites, fleeing a reported rash of attacks against their community, apparently by Syrian rebel gunmen.
The attacks reflect the increasingly ugly sectarian nature of Syria’s conflict, where an opposition largely based among the country’s Sunni majority has risen up against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is dominated by members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The motives for the attacks on Iraqis are unclear. They may be revenge against any Iraqi because the Shiite-led Iraqi government is seen as siding with al-Assad. They may also be fueled by sectarian hatreds, with resentment of Syria’s Alawite leadership flaring into anger at Shiites.
Last month alone, 23 Iraqi Shiites have been killed in Syria, some of them beheaded, according to the Washington-based Shiite Rights Watch. In one gruesome case, the UN said an Iraqi family of seven was killed at gunpoint in their Damascus apartment.
However, going back was wrenching for Hadi, given Iraq’s continued violence.
“There are still bombings and explosions here, and when we decided to return to Iraq, it was a hard moment — we cried a lot,” he said, speaking at his mother’s house in Baghdad, where his family is staying until they can find a home.
The exodus of Iraqis back home is a bitter reversal for refugees tossed back and forth by violence. According to UN estimates, more than 1 million Iraqis fled to Syria between 2005 and 2008, when their homeland was on the brink of civil war, torn between Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents butchering their rival communities. Those who fled to Syria were a sectarian mix, though the majority were Sunnis.
Over the past few years, Iraqis have been slowly leaving Syria, many returning home as violence in Iraq eased. Fewer than 200,000 Iraqis remain in Syria, according to the office of the Iraqi ambassador in Damascus.
However, the recent targeting of Iraqis brought a spike in returns. The majority of Iraqis fleeing Syria for home over the past month are Shiites, according to Saif Sabah, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration.
According to UN and Iraqi officials, most of them fled Damascus, which last month saw its worst fighting yet of the 17-month-old Syrian conflict. Amid the fighting, it appears rebel fighters targeted Iraqis in the city.
The UN refugee agency said Iraqis in the mainly Shiite Damascus suburb of Sayeda Zeinab in particular were fleeing because of increasing violence in general, but also “targeted threats” against them. Sayeda Zeinab saw heavy activity by rebel fighters during the Damascus battles.
Hadi and his family lived in Sayeda Zeinab. He said Sunni rebels and gangs went on a rampage in the suburb.
He blamed the Free Syrian Army, the loose umbrella group of rebel fighters.