In the fall of 2014 Iraqi government forces slowly began to take back ground it had lost to the Islamic State (IS) during the summer. They captured a number of small towns and insurgent strongholds topped off by the seizure of Tikrit in April 2015. In many of these areas the inhabitants fled during the fighting and have not been able to return. This was due to a number of issues ranging from the lack of trusted local allies to fear that insurgents would re-infiltrate with the returnees to political disputes over who should control the towns. The effect has been to create a number of ghost towns in Iraq that are likely to remain empty for the foreseeable future.
The first clearing out of inhabitants started in small places and was barely noticed. One example was Barzanke in Ninewa. Kurdish forces freed it in October 2014. Much of it was destroyed during the fighting by the Islamic State and afterward by the peshmerga. Some Kurds said they did not want the inhabitants back because they were IS supporters, and that was the reason why their homes had been flattened. Similarly, the Khorasani Brigade cleared Yangije in Salahaddin, and afterward destroyed homes and arrested and beat people who tried to return accusing them of being pro-insurgent. Parts of the Tuz Kharmato district in northeast Salahaddin suffered the same fate. The apprehension that locals were supporters of the Islamic State would be used again and again to justify the emptying of towns across the country.
In October the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Hashd al-Shaabi also cleared the Islamic State stronghold of Jurf al-Sakhr in northwest Babil. The town was empty afterward, and remains so to the present time. The official reason given for not allowing the locals back was that it was too dangerous because there were explosives everywhere. Right after Jurf al-Sakhr was taken a Babil parliamentarian said it would take up to six months to clear all the IEDs from the area that he estimated might number around 3,000. The Babil Operations Command stated that might take up to a year. The provincial council followed that by barring people from returning for 8-10 months in December. In the meantime the ISF were turning the place into a military base, building earthworks and checkpoints all over the area. Although it was not said in public the reason why Jurf al-Sakhr remains abandoned was the fear that the inhabitants were IS supporters and would help the group return to the area. Since the place had been under Islamic State control for so long, it was assumed that the people must be loyal to it and therefore not trustworthy. Their scattering to displaced camps was therefore considered a security move.
The following month the peshmerga and Hashd recaptured Jalawla and Sadiya in northeast Diyala setting off a political rivalry between the two forces. As in the previous examples, the citizens fled both towns, and both the peshmerga and Hashd were accused of destroying homes. Likewise, the danger of explosives and IS sympathizers were the reasons given for not allowing anyone back in. The difference in this case was that the core reason that the towns remained empty was the dispute between the Hashd and Kurds. The latter claimed the two as part of the disputed territories, but the Hashd had different plans. A commander in the Khorasani Brigade told Reuters that the Kurds couldn’t keep the Jalawla, and that it was under the authority of the central government. Given the Khorasani Brigade’s close ties to Iran and its opposition to Kurdish independence, this could have been a way for Tehran to warn the Kurds about their territorial ambitions. If the locals were brought back it would provide one side or another facts on the ground to support their claims and upset the stalemate between the two. Until that is resolved Jalawla and Sadiya will remain absent of civilians.
These stories of low level sectarian cleansing of Sunni Arabs initially raised fears that Iraq was heading back to the civil war days of 2006-08. Government forces were denying people the right to return to their homes in a number of towns out of fear that the locals were IS supporters and would allow the militants to move back in at some later date. In the disputed territories of Salahaddin and Diyala this process was complicated by the Kurds’ desire to annex places under its control and the Hashd and Iran’s opposition to these plans. The authorities however, just let the first families return to Tikrit, which was a ghost town beforehand showing that this process of emptying area was not systematic. Still, places like Jurf al-Sakhr, Sadiya, Jalawla and others are likely to remain bereft of people for the foreseeable future.
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