If Iraq were ever to split into three separate regions – a Shiite region, a Sunni region and a Kurdish region – then the small city of Nukhayb, home to around 4,000 inhabitants, would be on the border of the Shiite and Sunni regions. The desert city, surrounded by sand dunes, is just about equidistant from the city of Ramadi in the mostly-Sunni Muslim province of Anbar and Karbala, a city that is populated mainly by Shiite Muslims.
The people of the city themselves have good reason to be confused about which province they belong to. They are geographically closer to Karbala, yet culturally – they are mostly Sunnis and mostly affiliated with other nearby Sunni tribes – they are closer to Anbar. In legal terms the city has changed hands several times, going from being Karbala's responsibility to Anbar's and back again since 1960. The idea was last mooted in 2009 when a leading local politician, who had just been elected in Karbala, suggested Nukhayb should belong to Karbala rather than Anbar. Among other reasons, this would be suitable because Karbala would be able to better provide the town with municipal services, he said. The subsequent debate caused demonstrations in Anbar, the province that still controls Nukhayb today.
The city's position has meant that it needs military forces in and around it; the extremist group known as the Islamic State took control of nearby Ramadi last month. Most of the soldiers currently in and around the city are members of the Mid-Euphrates forces. However some of the city's politicians are now saying that these forces should withdraw. They say the city's interests would be better served by soldiers from the Western Region and they accuse officials in Karbala of trying to consolidate their hold on the city through their soldiers. Social media lit up with rumours as a result.
“No steps to change the security forces here will be taken without orders from the Iraqi army,” Karbala governor Aqeel al-Turaihi countered those accusations during a press conference in Karbala. “There are no divisive agendas at work here and Karbala and Ramadi are not separate countries.” Al-Turaihi added that he wouldn't even consider that idea.
The Iraqi military and members of the unofficial Shiite militias are only there for the sake of the local people, insists Nassif Jassem al-Khattabi, the head of Karbala's provincial council.
“None of our forces will be withdrawing,” Hamid Sahib al-Karbalai, head of Badr organisation in Karbala, added; the Badr brigades have been at the forefront of fighting against the Islamic State, or IS, group. “In fact, more troops are coming to support the military and the tribal forces in this area who will be fighting the IS group. We are going to deploy enough forces here to secure the roads into Anbar.”
The two provinces are inextricably linked when it comes to security. Nukhayb sits on a major junction and has roads going toward Saudi Arabia, north to Ramadi and northeast to Karbala. It is the last Iraqi town before pilgrims cross into Saudi Arabia on their way to Mecca.
Sitting on these cultural and religious cross roads can cause Nukhayb to become a flashpoint. For example, in 2012, Karbala-based security forces – and therefore mainly Shiite Muslims – went to Nukhayb after armed men murdered a group of Karbala locals returning from Syria and Jordan. But this incursion by the security forces angered tribal leaders and politicians in neighbouring Anbar, who saw it as an illegal entrance into the mostly Sunni Muslim province.
Nukhayb is a very important part of the country for the people in Karbala, says Ali al-Shaya, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. “It is the only city that connects Karbala with Saudi Arabia – and we all know that since 2003, Saudi Arabia has been accused of importing terrorists into Iraq. It's also important because it has potential as an economic border for the two countries.”
It has also been pointed out that many of Nukhayb's leading families and tribal leaders have close connections to Karbala, owning houses and other property there; many are also resident in Karbala.
“In this city there are two main tribes – the Shammar and the Anza,” explains Fadel Mitlib Jassim, who heads Nukhayb's local council. “They have their historic roots in Ramadi. But this small city has no problem being part of either province,” he continued. “Politicians only remember Nukhayb when there is conflict. I am confident they actually know nothing about this city and they've probably never even been here. It's a very quiet city and people here live calm, quiet, secure lives. They just want to make a living – that is enough for them.”