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After the exodus: A second wave?

WASHINGTON // While the Iraqi refugee populations in Syria, Jordan and other neighbors appear to have stabilized, one analyst in the region says conditions in Iraq suggest the possibility of another exodus.

"I see very much the lack of political progress as a potential trigger," Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Friday on the telephone from Istanbul. "And the only thing that's preventing this trigger from being fired is the fact that the United States is still there.

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"Everybody's waiting for the new president, and who it will be, and what the person's policy will be. And if it's going to be a drawdown of U.S. forces, which it may well be, without leaving behind a viable situation … we're going to have a return to fighting between what are essentially militias."

Hiltermann said the United States "plays the pivotal role" in "brokering the political deals that will be needed to heal this ailing polity," and he identified what he considers to be the key issues awaiting resolution: oil revenues, constitutional review, and federalism.

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"All these very big, important questions that, if they're not fixed, may prompt a return to fighting, and therefore not only the non-return of the refugees but possibly a new wave of refugees," he said.

Hiltermann helped prepare the July report in which the International Crisis Group took the United States, Iraq, the host countries and others to task for what it described as an inadequate response to the refugee crisis.

He said today that the international community, which was caught largely by surprise when Iraqis began fleeing their homeland by the hundreds of thousands in late 2006 and 2007, should be preparing now for a "second wave" of refugees -- which he said could prove more challenging than the first.

"The refugees we've had, even though many now are poor, were still relatively the wealthier ones in Iraq," he said. "So the really poor ones, we haven't seen. We haven't seen refugee camps. We haven't seen these conspicuously festering problems that we've seen in the Palestinian refugee situation.

"But a second wave could do that. Because I don't think that Jordan and Syria, certainly not Jordan, would open its borders to a second wave. And in that case, if people decide to come anyway because their lives are directly threatened in Iraq, then you end up with encampments on the border. That is a very, very bad situation."

Hiltermann said the situation now is in a "holding pattern."

"Everybody's waiting for the American elections and to see what the strategy of the new president will be," he said. "And then, I think, much will flow from that."

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