By Donatella Rovera
Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser
Thousands of Iraqi civilians displaced by the current conflict are stranded at checkpoints separating the areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the rest of Iraq. At first civilians, who fled after the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – ISIL) captured large areas of northwestern Iraq, were being allowed to enter Iraqi Kurdistan, but in recent weeks and days, access has been severely restricted by the KRG.
Some of those who fled are seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan while others want to travel southwards to the capital and beyond. The former are mostly Sunni Muslims who fear air strikes by government forces and their allies and the harsh rule of the Islamic State.The latter are Shia Muslims from the Turkmen and Shabak communities who are trying to flee southwards to government-controlled areas of Iraq where the majority of the population is Shia and where they feel there is no risk of an Islamic State takeover.
The sudden capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, on June 10 by the Islamic State prompted a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of frightened residents who have poured into the neighbouring autonomous Kurdish region, administered by the KRG.
With the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from northwestern Iraq, the KRG has gained control of the disputed oil-rich town of Kirkuk and other areas, and in recent days, it has announced plans for a referendum on independence, a move fiercely opposed by the Iraqi central government.
Regardless of the political wrangling between Baghdad and Erbil, it is imperative that civilians displaced by the conflict are granted refuge in and safe passage through KRG-controlled areas.
While Iraqi and international political discourse seems largely out of step with the rapidly changing reality on the ground, the sectarian dimension of the conflict is becoming more marked by the day and Iraq’s diverse communities are struggling to grapple with the new reality. They increasingly wonder where and how they can be safe.
The Turkmen community is a telling example. When I first arrived in Iraq, just after the capture by the Islamic State of Tal Afar – home to some 200,000 people – and other areas mostly inhabited by members of the Turkmen community, local residents mostly identified themselves as Turkmen. Now, only a few weeks later, virtually all those I meet identify themselves as Turkmen Shia or Turkmen Sunni.
The Turkmen Shia are trying to flee to the Shia stronghold in the south, the Turkmen Sunni are not even contemplating going there; they are staying put in the north, terrified of government air strikes against areas controlled by the Islamic State.
“We are not with ISIL, but when the government bombs ISIL we are in the middle and when we get killed nobody cares,” said a woman whose relatives – two young children and their parents – were killed in an air strike in Tal Afar on June 22.
Shia Shabak who have fled villages east of Mosul recently seized by the Islamic State, told me that some of their relatives had been killed or captured, while their Shabak Sunni neighbours had remained in the villages and faced no trouble from the Islamic State.
Many Shia Turkmen and Shabak civilians I met have alleged that their Sunni neighbours are cooperating with the Islamic State, while Sunni Turkmen and Shabak have accused Shia members of their community of being linked to pro-government armed Shia militias.
While no evidence is generally provided to support such polarising narratives, perception can be as important as reality, poisoning relations between communities and adding fuel to an already inflamed situation.
Minorities in Iraq, including Christians, Yazidis and others feel particularly vulnerable, and rightly so. The Islamic State referred to their Yazidi hostages as “devil worshippers” in one of their recent videos, and the abduction of two Christian nuns in Mosul on June 28 are just two examples of a string of recent incidents targeting minority groups.
However, members of Iraq’s majority communities do not feel safe either. Indeed, most of those killed and displaced in this conflict are from the Shia- and Sunni-majority communities, who happened to be a minority in a particular place at a particular time.
Increasing speculation about a possible three-way split of Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish states or entities, is raising serious concerns about the massive population displacement which would likely ensue. Minorities are very concerned about whether, if this came to fruition, their communities would still have a future in Iraq. Iraqi leaders and would-be leaders and their backers in the international community must act responsibly and work towards finding solutions to the current crisis which ensure that members of all communities are protected and their rights respected.