Monday, June 30, 2014
A Reignited War Drives Iraqis Out in Huge Numbers
DARBANDIKHAN, Iraq — As Sunni rebels advanced across Iraq in recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were driven from their homes. For many, it was not the first time.
There have been very few prolonged periods of peace in Iraq over the last several decades, and for civilians seemingly perpetual flight. More than a million Iraqis have been displaced this year, half within the last couple of weeks, the United Nations says.
For Akheel Ahmed, a Sunni Arab who fled his home in the central Iraq town of Balad, fear and uncertainty were accompanied by familiarity. He arrived in this mountain village along the Iranian border a few days ago with his three sons, the second time in recent years that he has become a refugee in his own country.
Using hand gestures, he described the battlefield that his hometown had become.
“Here is ISIS,” he said, referring to the Sunni militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, “and here are the Shiite militias. We are in between.”
He then checked off the names of his sons, to emphasize the urgency of his exodus.
“I have an Omar, an Othman and an Asha,” he said, all recognizable as Sunni names, making them targets for the Shiite militias now working alongside the Iraqi Army. “They will slaughter them.”
The rapid advances of ISIS and other Sunni militant groups across Iraq have increasingly merged the civil war in Syria and the violent Sunni uprising here into a single battle zone. Now, the humanitarian crises gripping both countries are converging. Millions of Syrians have already fled to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and now Iraqis are on the move, too.
Iraqis endured an enormous refugee crisis after the American invasion in 2003. In those years, many fled to Syria, but that is no longer an option. Jordan, another past destination for Iraqi refugees, is facing difficulty caring for the huge numbers of displaced Syrians.
“The situation is reaching a critical point,” said a United Nations official who spoke on the condition of anonymity as a matter of official policy. “As bad as Syria is, the crisis here is growing by day and exceeding the capabilities of the government. Effectively there is no centralized government over all of Iraq now, and in past years, they were already relatively weak.”
This year, the United Nations appealed to donors for $106 million to care for nearly 500,000 civilians displaced from Anbar Province, where militants began capturing territory in late December. Only a small portion of that amount was raised, and now the United Nations is planning to ask donors for another $312 million to face the new wave of displaced people.
Here in this village in northeastern Iraq, school is out and classrooms have become homes for this country’s displaced.
A group of men standing outside the elementary school here, Mr. Ahmed among them, were asked if any of them had been forced to flee their homes multiple times over the last decade of near-nonstop violence.
“Yes, yes, all of us,” one said.
Another school in this town was also filled with refugees, many from Diyala Province, a mixed area heavily contested by Shiite militias and Sunni militants. One of the refugees was Ahmed Awad, a 9-year-old boy whose father, he said, was recently kidnapped in front of him by masked gunmen. It was the second time in recent years he had been driven from his home.
His older brother, Dia Awad, stood nearby and explained why they fled in 2007, reciting the reasons as casually as if he were reading a grocery list.
“Sectarian war,” he said. “Qaeda. Clashes. They blew up our house.”
Many of the displaced Iraqis have come to the autonomous Kurdish region here in the north. Spread across the region are tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, some of them children who beg at traffic circles in the capital, Erbil. There are also people who fled the fighting in Anbar earlier in the year.
The region, though relatively peaceful and prosperous, has been locked in a fight over oil revenue with Baghdad, which has cut its budget payments to the Kurdish government. That has produced a fiscal crisis and sharply limited the ability of the region to meet the refugee challenge. Kurdish leaders, while receiving praise for their open doors, are also wary of allowing too many Arabs into the territory, especially if they are single men of fighting age.
Iraq’s Kurds have long been in conflict with the Arab populations over territory, and amid the current fighting have tried to expand their autonomous enclave and increase their control over it.
“They won’t let me in because I am an Arab,” said one man, near a checkpoint on the road between Erbil and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which has been in the hands of militants for more than two weeks.
On the other side of the Kurdish region, near the Syrian border and several hours’ drive through mountains and dry scrublands, ramshackle tent camps have been established as temporary homes for the displaced, many of them from Iraq’s vulnerable minorities: Christians, Turkmen and Yazidis.
At one of the dusty, sweltering camps, where there was just enough food and water but few medical supplies, Semira Ali, a Turkmen woman, sat with her large family. They were from Tal Afar, a nearby city that was the site of fierce fighting between Sunni militants and the army, and this was not the first time they had fled. That was in 2005, when the Americans bombed the city. The second time was in 2006, at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war. The third time was this month.
Another Turkmen, Jassim Aziz Muhammed, stood nearby and said that his people were caught between the two warring sects. “We are in the middle of the Shiites and ISIS, and we don’t know what is happening,” he said.
Iraq faces a bleak future, with the apparent unfolding of a new sectarian civil war and the possibility of its fracturing into identities of faith or ethnicity, rather than nationality. The displaced, too, face the same divisions.
Here in Darbandikhan, most of the displaced are Sunni Arabs fleeing the militias or government airstrikes. They are angry for their present circumstances, but express deeper grievances, rooted in history, that leave little space for reconciliation between Iraq’s Sunni minority and its Shiite majority.
Mr. Ahmed, reflecting a widely held belief in this country’s Sunni population, said in defiance of the facts that his sect is a majority in Iraq. In many ways, Iraq’s Sunnis have never accepted the new political order that came after the American invasion, which forced out the Sunni-dominated government of Saddam Hussein and led, through democratic elections, to Shiite domination.
For a new leader of Iraq, he said, “We would accept a Kurd, a Christian or even a Jew.”
But not, he said, a Shiite.
“They consider us infidels,” he said. “And we consider them infidels.”
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