Iraqi army and Shia militias on patrol near Jurf al-Sakhar. (photo: وزارة الدفاع العراقية )
These days, Hamid al-Janabi and the six members of his family make do with their one room home in the town of Musayib, in the northern part of the province of Babel. The room is not more than 30 meters square and it’s a far cry from the farm the family used to live on, in their hometown of Jurf al-Sakhar. They left there three years ago when the extremist group known as the Islamic State took over the town.
“Jurf al-Sakhar was liberated from the terrorists three years ago but we have not been allowed to return,” al-Janabi told NIQASH, referring to the Islamic State, or IS, group, which took over the town in June 2014 but which was driven out shortly afterwards, in October. “People say we are terrorists too but we are just defenceless civilians and we used to be farmers. The displaced people of Fallujah – and that was described as the capital of the extremists – have been allowed to return home. But we have not.”
Many of the people in this town joined the IS group and even before that, they were joining Al Qaeda and other Sunni Muslim armed groups.
Unlike other cities from which the IS group have been pushed out, Jurf al-Sakhar remains deserted. Residents have not been allowed to return and the only people living there are members of the Shiite Muslim militias who helped push the IS group out. This includes more hard-line factions affiliated with Iran, such as the Badr organization and the League of the Righteous. The town’s name was changed from Jurf al-Sakhar, which means rocky bank, to Jurf al-Nasr, meaning bank of victory, by the fighters. They, along with some members of the Babel provincial council, say they do not want locals to return.
In fact, last Thursday the Babel provincial council, made up of mostly Shiite Muslim politicians and dominated by the State of Law coalition, voted to prosecute any politician demanding the return of the displaced.
Jurf al-Sakhar was a Sunni Muslim-majority town with around 30,000 residents before the IS group took over. It was also the only Sunni town in a Shiite Muslim-dominated province. There is a strong Sunni tribal culture here and most of the locals used to work in agriculture because of the town’s proximity to the Euphrates River. Jurf al-Sakhar is connected to the major Anbar cities of Fallujah and Ramadi and is only 60 kilometres away from Baghdad; importantly for local Shiite Muslims, it also sits on a road leading to some of the holiest sites for their sect.
The Babel provincial council’s statement caused anger and resentment among Sunni Muslim politicians and dismay for families like al-Janabi’s, thousands of whom are still waiting to return home.
“Banning the people of Jurf al-Sakhar from returning home is part of attempt to induce demographic change in this part of the country,” Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni Muslim MP and head of the Iraqi Parliament's Committee on Immigration and Displacement, told NIQASH. “This is also happening in Diyala, Salahaddin, the suburbs of Baghdad and even in Ninawa.”
Fighters from the Shiite Muslim militias in Jurf al-Sakhar.
Most of the people of Jurf al-Sakhar are still living in either Anbar or in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan. “None of them has been able to return even though the town was liberated three years ago,” al-Dahlaki continued. “And those who left to live in cities near Jurf al-Sakhar are often the victims of kidnapping or false arrest.”
The reason people cannot return home is due to the location of Jurf al-Sakhar, Majid al-Sahlani, a field commander with a Shiite Muslim militia in northern Babel, explains. When the IS group attacked in the summer of 2014 they had a plan to enter Baghdad too.
“To achieve that goal, the terrorists took Jurf al-Sakhar, which is close to the highway connecting Baghdad and the southern provinces,” al-Sahlani explains. “The IS group wanted to cut off this road so that the Shiite Muslim militias couldn’t come to the rescue of the capital. It was extremely difficult to regain control of Jurf al-Sakhar and it took efforts from every militia but we were able to expel the IS group.”
“Many fighters lost their lives,” al-Sahlani explains, when asked why ordinary locals are not allowed to return to Jurf al-Sakhar, “and speaking frankly, there are fears that the terrorists will infiltrate this area again. Many of the people in this town joined the IS group and even before that, they were joining Al Qaeda and other [Sunni Muslim] armed groups. We need to stabilize security in this town.”
Part of the reason for renewed interest in this problem is due to what the head of Babel’s provincial council, Raad al-Jibouri, said recently: There have been ten terrorist attacks in Jurf al-Sakhar recently, he stated, and they all took place within one month.
However other MPs in Baghdad say that al-Jibouri is just making it up to justify his own ban on people returning to the town. “How do terrorist operations happen in a completely empty and isolated area, where there are only security forces in residence?” a Sunni Muslim MP, Kamal al-Ghariri, wrote in an official statement.
Al-Ghariri adds that he and others have heard rumours that agricultural contracts are being renegotiated in the area, with the contracts signed over to Iraqis from out of town.
“Just as with the people of Fallujah, Ramadi and Salahaddin, most of the locals in Jurf al-Sakhar did not cooperate with the terrorists,” says Mohammed al-Karbouli, a politician who belongs to the main Sunni bloc in Baghdad. “Why shouldn’t’ they be allowed to return? The decision [to prosecute politicians calling for the displaced to return] is a violation of civil rights. Its aim is only to change demographics in the area.”
Al-Karbouli called upon the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to intervene in the matter.
In this case the Sunni Muslim politicians were not alone. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq also expressed dismay at the Babel council’s decision. “This decision, should it not be repealed, represents an attempt to intimidate Iraqi politicians from carrying out their duty to work for the betterment of the citizens of the country,” a statement from the Mission said, noting that they thought it should be repealed.