Shiite militias expand influence, redraw map in central Iraq

As Shiite forces push into territories held by ISIL, many Sunnis have fled for fear of both the Shiite-led government and the Sunni extremists.

Iraqi soldiers and volunteers from a Shiite militia take up position in Dhuluiya town, north of Baghdad, Iraq on 30 December 2014 as the town is recaptured by government forces along with Shiites militia supported by airstrikes from an international anti-ISIL coalition. EPA
Powered by automated translation

BAGHDAD // Behind black gates and high walls, Iraqi national security agents watch 200 women and children.

Boys and girls play in the yard and then dart inside their trailers, located in a former US military camp and one-time headquarters for Saddam Hussein’s officials in Babel province’s capital Hilla.

The women and children were rounded up as they fled with their male relatives in October from Jurf Al Sakhr, a bastion of ISIL, during a Shiite militia and military operation to clear the Sunni extremist group’s fighters from the farming community.

Security forces separated out the men, accusing them of being ISIL fighters. They have not been heard from since. The women and children are being investigated, but have not been brought to court.

Their status shows how central Iraq’s mixed Shiite and Sunni regions are being altered.

As Shiite forces push into territories held by ISIL, many Sunnis have fled for fear of both the Shiite-led government and the Sunni extremists.

Shiite leaders insist ISIL must never be allowed to strike them again, nor return to areas now abandoned.

Shiite groups now decide who can stay in a community and who should leave; whose houses should be destroyed and whose can stand.

“Some of these towns and villages, which were neutral or partial to [ISIL], have been retaken. I don’t think the people living there will go back. We are talking about depopulated areas that may be resettled by different groups,” said Ali Allawi a historian and former Iraqi minister.

More than 130,000 people, mostly Sunnis, fled central Iraq in 2014, counting just Baghdad’s agricultural belt and north-eastern Diyala province, according to the International Rescue Committee.

Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi’s government stresses the importance of helping people return home. But in the current chaos it is questionable whether officials can help, or that the displaced will want to return.

Already dramatic changes are happening on the ground. For the 200 women and children from Jurf Al Sakhr, it has meant an undefined period of detention.

“I’m trapped here living on charity without understanding why all this happened to us”, said Umm Mohamed. “All that I wish is to have my husband back and to return to our small farm.”

“These families were joining or harbouring [ISIL],” said Falah Al Rahdi, head of the Babel provincial council’s security committee. “The judicial system will decide their fate.”

As Shiite militia leaders and tribal allies surround Sunni villages in central Iraq, they insist they have strong intelligence from inside the communities.

“Our orders come from the government: whoever is with [ISIL], we will confiscate their land,”said a commander from Asaib Ahl Al Haq.Those who aren’t ISIL “will be allowed back”.

However, those who have lost their homes say the militias make little distinction between militants and civilians when they storm areas.

Akram Shahab, 32, a Shiite in Diyala’s Saadiya district, fled with his family in June when ISIL were about to overrun the town.

When he heard from a Sunni neighbour that a militant family had moved into his home, he was relieved it had not been blown up.

But after Iraqi militias and security forces kicked ISIL out in November, the militias burnt Mr Shahab’s house assuming it was a terrorist’s.

The next day, he went with Shiite militiamen to inspect the ruins. “I blamed the militia members at the scene for burning my house and they defended themselves, saying how could they tell a Sunni house from a Shiite house.”

Mr Shahab, who comes has both Shiite and Sunni relatives, said he managed to save his Sunni aunt’s house by telling the militia she belonged to their sect.

“They spray-painted [Shiite] on the gate to alert the other militia groups,” he said.

“They told me, ‘We need to clean your town from those germs who supported [ISIL]. You might have lost your house but as a Shiite you will live with your head high from now on’.”

* Reuters