April 24, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Fleeing the Islamic State in Anbar
Even for a country sadly accustomed to large numbers of its citizens fleeing their homes due to violence, Iraq has seen unprecedented levels of movement since last summer and continuing now in Anbar Province. With the Islamic State threatening to overrun the provincial capital of Ramadi, over 100,000 Sunnis have left their homes and made their way to Baghdad, giving rise to humanitarian and security challenges for a government poorly equipped to handle either. The situation has deteriorated to the point where Sunni tribal leaders, who were only weeks ago angrily denouncing the Shi’a militias and Popular Mobilization Forces fighting the Islamic State in Tikrit, are now requesting those same groups help defend them in Ramadi.
The Iraqi government is understandably concerned that the Islamic State will exploit the chaotic situation and infiltrate large numbers of its fighters into the capital, where they would finally initiate the ‘Battle of Baghdad’ long-threatened by the group. A sizable number of Islamic State fighters could certainly destabilize the capital to a huge extent, a scenario the government is determined to avoid. In addition to barring Anbar refugees from bringing their cars into the capital (meaning tens of thousands of people are crossing into Baghdad on foot carrying all their worldly possessions), the government has instituted a system in which no refugee is allowed to enter the capital unless a current Baghdad resident vouches for them. This has created huge crowds of desperate people caught between the Islamic State and an Iraqi government terrified of opening the capital up to mass infiltration.
Despite proclaiming to be the true defender of Sunni Iraq, the Islamic State and its savagery has forced massive numbers of Sunni to seek the protection of Shi’a—a trend hardly imaginable given the vicious sectarianism tearing at Iraq’s politics and society. For months, hundreds of Sunni families have been given shelter in the Shi’a holy city of Karbala, and both the Shi’a and Sunni endowments (Waqf) have pledged to do whatever they can to help the desperate Sunni of Anbar, opening up the mosques and husaniya to them. The Islamic State is determined to ignite a sectarian war and while it might succeed, all it has accomplished so far in what it considers its Sunni heartland is to completely alienate the population and bring them closer to the despised Shi’a.
While still well short of the 10 million forced from their homes in neighboring Syria, the size of the exodus that began in 2013 and then exploded last summer with the rapid gains of the Islamic State is enormous. According to estimates by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), 2.1 million Iraqis fled their homes from 2013-2015, mostly due to fighting initiated by the Islamic State. Even at the height of the full-blown sectarian war between 2006-2008, the IDMC estimated 1.1 million Iraqis were internally displaced (many of whom have never returned home), which highlights just how horrific conditions currently are in Iraq; they are likely to persist if not worsen.
The damage done by the sectarian war of 2006-2008 and now by the Islamic State has left an estimated 2.8-3.2 million Iraqis (10% of Iraq’s population) internally displaced. This has dramatically changed the ethnic makeup of Baghdad and other population centers. As seen in other countries with similar problems of internally displaced persons, many of these Iraqis will never return home, creating social and economic challenges that few countries would be able to manage, let alone one likely to be fighting extremists for years to come.
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