The surge in sectarian violence in Iraq that followed last February's bombing of a Shit'ite shrine in Samaara is forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes in southern and central Iraq. Many are heading to the relative calm of the Kurdish Region in northern Iraq. VOA's Jim Randle reports from the northern city of Irbil, where refugee agencies and the regional government are scrambling to determine what kind of help they need.
Abuzaid Suliaman, his wife, and some of his children and grandchildren are crowded into one room of a relative's house here in Irbil.
His family fled a spacious house in Baghdad when the fighting in their neighborhood made it too dangerous to stay.
Suliaman is Kurdish, and he says, if Shi'ites or Sunnis questioned his family and learned they were Kurds, they might be in danger.
So, he left Baghdad with six family members leaving behind almost everything but the clothes they were wearing.
Thousands of Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs have been victims of intimidation, and many, like the Suliamans, have decided to flee homes they owned for decades and head for the relative safety of northern Iraq.
But the Kurdistan regional government's coordinator for U.N. affairs, Dindar Zebari, says his government and U.N. agencies are already stretched thin taking care of refugees from Kurdish areas across the border and internally displaced, or IDPs, who are already here. He says, if they are going to take in more, they will need more help from Iraq's central government.
"Because most of the support and help that was given to Iraq was concentrated in the south, and also in the center of Iraq, for the last three years, and the issue of refugees and IDPs has not been taken care of in our part of the country," said Dindar Zebari.
Dr. Giorgio Francia, an official with Qandil, the Swedish-based refugee agency, says at least 10,000 families have fled to Irbil and surrounding areas of northern Iraq in the last few months. That means about 50,000 people, or perhaps more, are in need of shelter, work and, in many cases, schooling, as well as other services.
Francia says, so far, the flow of displaced people appears manageable, but that may change, depending on the security situation in central and southern Iraq.
"If there is a tremendous evolution for the worse in the south, they will come in the mass," said Giorgio Francia.
Francia says a rapid flood of displaced people might force officials to establish camps for IDPs. He says officials are reluctant to do this because such camps can stay open for decades and make people dependent.
"But still, if there are 10,000 people squatting in public buildings, you better create a camp, so everyone will have shelter, everyone will have some form of health assistance," he said.
Meanwhile, many of those who have sought refuge here, dream of returning home.
Suliaman's wife, Noria Abid Ali, says she misses the house she left behind in Baghdad.
She says she hopes to go home sometime, perhaps soon, if God wills it.