Iraqi officials say tens of thousands of refugees from several parts of the country, including Anbar and Salahedin provinces, have returned to their homes after Islamic State militants were pushed out of large swathes of territory by Iraqi government forces and Shi’ite volunteer militiamen earlier this year.
Iraqi media showed video of dozens of people returning to Anbar province’s second largest city of Fallujah. Families that were forced to leave the city during fighting to expel Islamic State militants earlier this year are starting to trickle back in, albeit under extremely close government scrutiny.
Names were being examined closely at a government security facility at the only entrance to the city.
Fallujah police chief Colonel Latif Jamal told Arab media his forces were just doing their job.
He said that security measures are imposed temporarily until law and order is restored in the city and that security personnel are doing their jobs and are imposing the law fairly, on everyone.
The chief of the refugee return department at the Iraqi Ministry of Emigration and Displaced People, Hamoudi Mahjoub, indicated Tuesday 180,000 people had returned to their homes since their areas were cleared of IS. VOA could not independently confirm the figure.
Skepticism over motives
But many residents in the town of Habaniya east of the Anbar capital of Ramadi, complain that nothing works.
A middle-aged merchant said many residents of Habaniya have returned, despite false promises and exaggerated claims by the government, and they have paid the price for the ongoing refugee crisis, since there is no running water, no electricity and no services to speak of.
American University of Beirut political science professor Hilal Khashan tells VOA he is suspicious about the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government’s motives in claiming that large numbers of displaced Sunnis have returned to their homes.
“I think that the extent of the return of the refugees is grossly exaggerated. This announcement about the return of refugees is politically driven and characterized by expediency to pave the way for the beginning of the battle for Mosul and for the participation of [Shi’ite volunteer militiamen] in it.”
Khashan argued the impending battle to recapture Mosul from IS is likely to be a “major human tragedy, since about one-and-a-half million people are likely to leave the city as fighting to retake it gets under way.” He thinks that the Iraqi government is trying to give the impression that refugees are being allowed to return to their homes in order to make the battle for Mosul “appear more palatable.”
Arab media reports that Islamic State has begun to dig a moat around Mosul to try and stave off an eventual assault by government forces. The Iraqi military and its Shi’ite militia allies are reported to be close to the center of the nearby town of Shirqat.