Iraq strains under largest internal refugee crisis since height of war

Fighting between Iraqi security forces and militants in Anbar Province has sent hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing, threatening areas where instability is already rising.

Mushtaq Muhammed/Reuters
Iraqi volunteers took part in a parade in Karbala, south of Baghdad. About 2,000 fighters volunteered from the provinces of central and south of Iraq at the start of the year to support tribal fighters and Iraqi security forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) at the desert in Anbar Province.

Iraq has the largest internal displacement since the height of the US war on its hands today as government forces try to wrest control of parts of Anbar Province back from militants, adding yet another source of instability to a country already teetering.

According to a Feb. 13 United Nations report, 62,679 families have fled since the fighting began at the end of December – 13,000 of them this week alone. With the UN's rough estimate of six people per family, that is more than 370,000 people, most of them pouring out of the Anbar cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. According to the report, 85 percent of Fallujah's population has been displaced.

Some are finding shelter in other parts of Anbar, but many are moving on to neighboring provinces, and an estimated 5,000 families have traveled to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north.

In Arbil, where most of the displaced headed to Kurdistan ended up, Yassir Qasr shows a photo of his house in Fallujah. The yellow cement wall is pockmarked with bullet holes and shattered window glass covers the ground. 

An engineer with the Ministry of Oil, Mr. Qasr came here with his wife, Rawa Abdullah, who is pregnant with twins. They left Fallujah on Jan. 10, when they found themselves caught in the crossfire between the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), Iraqi security forces, and local tribesmen fighting for control of parts of Anbar Province, Iraq’s largest province that lies between Baghdad and Syria to the west.

“There are armed people in the city and the Army outside the city – they are fighting and the victims are the civilians. It’s not normal to hear bombs falling on houses – I was afraid for my family,” Qasr says. “At the beginning ISIS was in the desert of Anbar, the tribes were cooperating with the Army. They would go to fight ISIS, but after a while the Army came to the city and start[ed] shooting randomly. The Army didn’t provide safe places for the people. They dealt with us like the whole city was just terrorists.”

"It was like theater," he says, describing the scenes of fighting.

Abdullah Thabet, an employee at an oil field in Ramadi and Rawa's father, adds, “We were in the line of fire. The weapons were so loud, and our ears couldn’t take it so we had to leave.”

Together with Rawa’s family, they are now staying at the New City Motel in Arbil, in a complex of small apartments built for tourists. They left with just the clothes they were wearing, plus some documents and money, leaving behind precious items like their wedding photos.

Fallujah and Ramadi hospitals recorded 126 people killed and 666 injured in the last three weeks of January, according to an Anbar situation report from the United Nations office in Iraq. The casualty figures from the crisis could be higher, however – residents say that ongoing fighting is preventing proper burials from taking place.

Indiscriminate fire

The fighting began on Dec. 30, when the Iraqi Army broke up a Sunni protest camp in the city of Ramadi. The government crackdown was harsh, and local Sunnis fought back. 

Capitalizing on local anger, ISIS, among the most brutal and powerful of the predominantly Sunni groups battling the regime in Syria, swept in to the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in early January. Previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq, it fought fiercely against US troops during the Iraq war and announced a merger with Syrian jihadist groups last year.

Their tactics were brutal, showing little concern for civilians, and they quickly lost local support. Some local Sunni tribesmen have now aligned themselves with the government to force them out.

Both sides are using imprecise weapons, such as artillery and mortars, says John Drake, Iraq specialist for AKE, a British risk mitigation firm. “This can cause indiscriminate damage, posing a risk to anyone caught up in the area, including civilians," he explains.

Mohammed Abid, a businessman from Fallujah, traveled to Arbil on Jan. 18 with 60 members of his extended family after witnessing his neighbor’s death. His cousin, Hatem, sits beside him, holding his head in his hands as he speaks. The random shooting claimed the lives of old men and women and children, they say.

“A shell fell on my neighbor’s house on the 16th January – two days before we came here. The mother and her three children died and the house was destroyed.” Mohammed says. Hatem adds, “We don’t know exactly who is shooting who. The revolutionaries are shooting [the Army] with light weapons and the Army is responding with heavy weapons.”

Building pressure

The current displacement comes on top of 1.13 million people who were left homeless, mostly due to sectarian violence between 2006 and 2008, and amid the highest levels of violence in Iraq since 2008. In 2013, almost 8,000 civilians died in violent attacks across Iraq, according to the UN. The growing numbers of internally displaced people are putting pressure on communities that were already struggling to deal with the uptick in violent attacks and strain on basic services.

Drake warns that the violence could spread to other parts of the country, naming Ninawa, Salah ad-Din, Diyala, and Babil provinces, and noted that violence has already increased in Baghdad in recent weeks. “The fighting could escalate further, although I can't see it being much worse than at present," he says.

In a January interview, Pawel Krzysiek, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad, called the humanitarian situation in Fallujah “dire." The organization delivered aid to more than 26,000 people in and around Fallujah and Ramadi, as well as to displaced people across Saladin, Karbala, and Babil provinces.

“Our teams in the field are confronted with increasing hardship faced by the people fleeing violence in Anbar. In Tikrit [in Saladin Province] we have been witnessing households of 10 families hosted by one family, say 60 to 65 people in one house comprised of four rooms,” Mr. Krzysiek says. "Wherever we go, we see the same situation at the moment. You have whole families moving, and an enormous amount of people being hosted. This puts pressure on the local population.” 

In the northern Kurdish region, the International Organization for Migration is distributing kerosene to 500 families, most of whom are staying in guest houses and motels or with family and friends. Aid agencies have also set up a temporary camp in Bahirka, north of Arbil, which can house 300 displaced families.

Kurdistan has remained largely free of the violence that has engulfed the rest of Iraq, but local officials say that while displaced people from Anbar are welcome, security measures are also being stepped up to try to limit any spread of violence.

”There has been a slight rise in terrorist activity in [Kurdistan] over recent months,” Drake says. “The increased threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Anbar and the wider Iraq-Syria theater is cause for some concern.”

Dindar Zebari, deputy minister in the department of foreign relations, says that while displaced people from Anbar are welcome in Kurdistan, “Security, this is something we will not compromise on.”

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