When Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, the U.S. government encouraged Iraqis living in America to return home. They were seen as key to the rebuilding, since many were well-educated, well-to-do and supportive of democracy.
But many of those who went back are giving up and returning to America, frightened and disillusioned by the bloodshed in their homeland.
“We were hoping to see a light at the end of the tunnel with the violence. But the light seems to be getting farther and farther away,” said 53-year-old Mosadek Al-Attar, who went to Iraq in 2003 to build an Islamic school and help reform the education system but is now back in America.
Similarly, Talal Ibrahim, a 53-year-old engineer, went to Iraq with plans to open a bottled-water factory in Baghdad. He has since returned to Mission Viejo, Calif.
“In this environment, nobody can do anything,” said Ibrahim, who now pays armed guards to watch over his empty building and remodeled house in Iraq. “People are depressed and fed up.”
In fact, the Bush administration announced on Feb. 14 it would allow about 7,000 Iraqi refugees into America — over 10 times more than it has accepted since the war began.
Now, most Iraqi Americans “have a family member they are trying to get out of Iraq,” said Nabil Roumayah, president of the Detroit-based Iraqi Democratic Union.
It is a stark contrast to the mood in May 2003, when President Bush declared the end of major combat operations. American officials hailed Iraq’s economic possibilities and encouraged Iraqi American professionals to invest.
It is unclear exactly how many Iraqi Americans returned home or how many came back. The State Department and the Iraqi Embassy said they do not keep count. But Iraqi American groups estimate several thousand returned, buying property, starting businesses and opening bank accounts. Several hundred worked on U.S. government reconstruction projects as translators to builders.
Now, many key sections of country have become engulfed in insurgent attacks and sectarian bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites, including suicide bombings, kidnappings for ransom and massacres.
Not a warm welcome back
Raya Barazanji, a 42-year-old Iraqi American who lives in Washington, returned to Iraq for three extended stints between 2003 to 2005 to work on an education project through the U.S. government.
Her driver was hijacked on his way to pick her up one day, one of her security guards was shot and killed in a separate attack, and gunmen attacked her caravan. She decided to leave for good after Iraqi police raided her family’s house in Baghdad while searching for insurgents.
“They tried to put handcuffs on me until I showed them my U.S. passport,” Barazanji said. “But because I did that, I had exposed myself and had to leave immediately.”
She spent the night in a safe house and left the next day.
Iraqi groups estimate more than 300,000 Iraqis live in the United States.
Sam Kubba, 66, opened an art gallery in Baghdad in the early 1990s, often traveling between Iraq and Herndon, Va. When Saddam was overthrown, Kubba tried to go back to run his business and work on U.S.-backed reconstruction projects.
He left Iraq five months ago after police found his name on a hit list during a raid on suspected kidnappers.
“I am trying to run my Iraq business by phone,” Kubba said in a telephone interview from Jordan. “A number of friends and people I know have been killed or abducted in Iraq during the last few months. Things seem to be totally out of control.”