In the summer of 2017 the Iraqi forces freed Baaj in western Ninewa near the Syrian border. The area was believed to be a major Islamic State base where its leadership had fled. The insurgents retreated rather than put up a fight. In the aftermath, the entire civilian population was forced out, and few have been able to return since then as they are suspected IS sympathizers or family members, and the area has largely been turned into a military base for the Hashd.
In April 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported of the roughly 13,000 people that used to live in Baaj, only around 1,000 had gone back home. HRW received a summary of a meeting held in February 2018 where leaders from the Badr Organization, local officials and sheikhs decided to deny returns to any Islamic State family members. This has happened in other liberated areas of Iraq where governments, communities, and security forces have decided to keep relatives of IS from their homes because of the crimes committed by the group. Those people are now facing collective punishment and are society’s outcasts.
Even before that however, the Hashd emptied the Baaj district turning west Ninewa into a security zone. In June 2017 for instance, the Guardian’s Martin Chulov travelled through the area and found that all of the civilians had been expelled. The Iraqi forces told residents that the area was not safe. Hashd units were also turning the area into a military base. In the following weeks and months civilians were saying they were being blocked from returning and the mayor was told he couldn’t re-open his office either. It wasn’t until February 2018 that people were finally allowed back, but it appeared most were going to the district, rather than Baaj itself. During the war the Hashd claimed they would clear and hold Iraq’s border. They have remained entrenched in western Ninewa since then, often repulsing IS infiltration attempts and firing artillery into Syria at insurgent targets. That is an added reason why they have blocked so many people from going back to Baaj since it is still part of their ongoing military plans. This will be one of the lasting legacies of the IS war. Large populations will be permanently displaced as they are treated as pariahs for their ties to the Islamic State, and some areas will be largely barren as a result.
Ali, Nasr, “Hashd forces bar mayor, residents from return to town west of Mosul,” Rudaw 7/4/17
Chulov, Martin, “Booby-traps … but no Baghdadi: the men cleaning up after Isis in northern Iraq,” Guardian, 6/12/17
- “From Tehran to Beirut: Shia militias aim to firm up Iran’s arc of influence,” The Guardian, 6/16/17
Al Ghad Press, “Al-Baaj council announces the return of all displaced persons to the district,” 2/13/18
Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Local Forces Banish ISIS Suspects’ Families,” 4/26/18
Ibn News, “Al-Asadi: Daash Lots Its Last Stronghold In Western Nineveh,” 6/4/17
Kittleson, Shelly, “Why liberating Mosul won’t lead to the end of IS,” Al Monitor, 5/10/17
Sotaliraq, “An Iraqi parliamentarian accuses the popular crowd of reprisals in Ninewa,” 3/23/18
- “The popular crowd prevents displaced families from returning to western Mosul,” 11/12/17