Aid agencies fear for thousands as displacement camps in Baghdad are closed

Closures follow concern camps could become new breeding grounds for Isis

Nihaya Issa, (33) an Iraqi woman displaced from Mosul,  at al-Khazir camp for the internally displaced, located between Iraq’s northern city of Mosul and the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region Arbil.  Photograph:  Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty

Nihaya Issa, (33) an Iraqi woman displaced from Mosul, at al-Khazir camp for the internally displaced, located between Iraq’s northern city of Mosul and the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region Arbil. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty

 

Baghdad has begun to close camps sheltering Iraqis displaced by the fall of Islamic State’s “caliphate” three years ago on the grounds that its ideology could spread in the densely populated and restive settlements.

Aid organisations working in the camps have expressed concern over the decision to dismantle them by the end of the year as no provision has been made for 60,000 Sunnis suspected of past jihadi affiliation, who are to be expelled in winter during a pandemic.

Amnesty International has criticised Baghdad for abandoning families who are “at risk of ending up in precarious shelters or being forced to return to their areas of origin despite safety fears”.

Although the expulsions are meant to force camp dwellers to reintegrate into Iraqi society, many if not most may have no homes to return to or may not be welcomed in cities, towns and villages where they lived before Islamic State, also known as Isis, swept from Syria into Iraq in mid-2014.

The government has been encouraged to disperse the displaced by US Central Command. Its head, Gen Frank McKenzie, told the National Council on US-Arab Relations that Islamic State is carrying on its mission in camps in both Syria and Iraq and failure to reintegrate displaced children, which make up the majority in the camps, could create “a strategic problem 10 years down the road when these children grow up radicalised”.

Iraq’s minority Sunnis have, however, long been radicalised. Following the 2003 US occupation, Sunnis joined the jihadi resistance, and when the US installed a pro-Iran Shia fundamentalist regime which marginalised and persecuted Sunnis, they turned to Islamic State.

Today pro-Iran Shia militias continue to prevent not only Sunnis but also Christians, Kurds and Yazidis from returning to home towns and villages.

While most of the estimated 250,000 displaced Iraqis live in the Kurdish autonomous region where they are permitted to remain in camps, prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi seeks to disperse those in provinces governed by Baghdad well ahead of assembly elections next June.

Nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saairun bloc, the largest in parliament, has launched an energetic campaign to increase representation and secure the premiership.

Ahead of the election, revered Grand Shia Ayatollah Ali Sistani has ordered his four militias to merge into the regular Iraqi army. This is a popular move as Iraqis are weary of militias.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration plans to withdraw 500 of its 3,500 troops from Iraq by mid-January and to reduce US embassy staff due to security concerns, although vice-admiral Sam Paparo, commander of the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, has said the US and Iran have reached “uneasy deterrence” despite tensions over US sanctions and Iran’s nuclear programme.