Jurf al-Sakhr in northwest Babil province was once the bastion of the Islamic State’s operations from central to southern Iraq. The government tried again and again to clear out the area, until finally succeeding in October 2014. As part of the operation to free the town the entire population was forced out. Since then none has been allowed to return. The Babil government claims the area is unsafe due to improvised explosive devices left behind by IS, but it is really due to mistrust of the population and wanting to keep routes to the south safe that is leading to the decision.
The Babil provincial council has repeatedly said that no one is allowed back into Jurf al-Sakhr until it is safe. The most recent example was on April 6, 2016. They’ve had that opinion for months now dating back to at least December 2014. The Babil Operations Command stated the same thing in October 2014 immediately after the town was liberated. Al Monitor interviewed a sheikh from Jurf al-Sakhr in June 2015 who claimed that the area was actually secured. He claimed it was the council that was not allowing people back because it did not trust them. Since Jurf al-Sakhr was such an IS stronghold, members of the council have accused the residents of all being supporters of the militants. In those situations, local authorities have not allowed people to return to their residences because they are considered a security risk. This has happened across the country in many other towns and cities after
IS has been ejected.
IS has been ejected.
Besides the suspicions about the loyalties of the population another issue was at play. Jurf al-Sakhr lays along two main thoroughfares used by Shiite pilgrims from Baghdad and the north to travel to Najaf and Karbala for pilgrimages to the shrines there. The final campaign to free the town was launched before just one of those religious ceremonies. The Hashd that still control security in the area, and the Babil council are not willing to threaten those processions, and have sacrificed the population of Jurf al-Sakhr to ensure that people are protected along those routes.
Jurf al-Sakhr was a long time base for the Islamic State. The group used it to launch operations into a wide swath of the country. For example Amiriya Fallujah in eastern Anbar, Abu Ghraib, Dora, and southern towns in Baghdad province, along with Karbala, Najaf and the entire south were targeted. It was likely the source for car bombings as far down as Basra. Its importance was shown as IS attacks in the south almost completely stopped after the town was freed. The government made attempt after attempt to free the area as a result, with little to no success until October 2014. The town was finally liberated on October 24 by an operation led by the Badr Organization with help from Iranian Revolution Guards’ Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani. It was reported that Iranian personnel were even involved on the ground. As part of the campaign the entire population, some 80,000 people, was forced out, leaving it empty afterward. It was then converted into a military base, and used to support offensives in Anbar. Iraqi forces were moved in and out of the town, but it was declared unsafe for any civilians.
As areas are freed there is a political debate about who should be allowed back based upon their loyalties. Tens of thousands have been prevented from returning home if they are believed to be pro-insurgent, and whole towns are empty as a result, just like Jurf al-Sakhr. Those fears are doubled in this case by the fact that it lays abreast important highways to Iraq’s Shiite shrine cities in the south. It may take the defeat of the Islamic State for things to change, and for the people of the area to be allowed to go to their homes. Even then the situation may not change as it’s been 18 months since the town was freed and there has been no change in the opinions of the Hashd and Babil council about returns.
Abbas, Mushreq, “Displaced Iraqis still wait to return home,” Al Monitor, 6/24/15
Hassan, Alaa, “Babylon Council decides not to allow the return of displaced families to Jurf al-Nasr,” Alsumaria, 3/12/15
Kirkpatrick, David, “Sunnis Fear Permanent Displacement From Iraqi Town,” New York Times, 12/5/14
Al Mada, “Babil Council: the return of displaced to Jurf al-Nasr depends on clearing IEDs,” 4/2/16
- “Iraqi army and the militias entering the center of Jurf al-Sakhr on the one hand and waving the Iraqi flag over the main buildings,” 10/24/14
- “Jurf al-Sakhr documents reveal Daash places and weapons,” 11/1/14
Morris, Loveday, “Iraq’s victory over militants in Sunni town underlines challenges government faces,” Washington Post, 10/29/14
Reuters, “After victory in key Iraqi town, time for revenge,” 10/26/14
Stars and Stripes, “Freed but empty: Sunnis barred from returning to Iraqi town,” 3/13/15