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Shattered by War, Sunni Arabs Despair Over Future in Iraq

FILE - In this May 2, 2017 file photo, Mosul residents wait in a queue for food distribution in western Mosul, Iraq.
FILE - In this May 2, 2017 file photo, Mosul residents wait in a queue for food distribution in western Mosul, Iraq.

Fawaz Saleh Ahmed has been secretly sneaking into his own village in northern Iraq to visit his home.

The last time he went, he wept as he spent several hours going from room to room in the partially destroyed house, he said. When his tears dried, he made his way back to the nearby Khazir camp housing those displaced by war, where he and his family have lived for almost a year.

Frustratingly, tantalizingly, he can see his house from there, but the Kurdish forces controlling his village, called Hassan Shami, won't allow him to return to live.

"That is my house there on the hill, do you see it?" said Ahmed, a member of Iraq's once-dominant Sunni Arab minority. He stretched his arm to point.

The 39-year-old Ahmed's predicament is part of the wider disaster facing Iraq's Sunni Arabs. Three years of war have freed their lands from the rule of the Islamic State group but have also left the community at its lowest state ever. Sunnis are feeling lost, unsure what their place will be in the country's future and worried that the Shiite majority and the Kurds aim to change the demographics of some Sunni areas to impose their own control.

Sunnis have been barred from returning to their homes in numerous villages and towns that the Kurds seized during fighting with Islamic State militants in a belt of territory across the north stretching down to Iraq's eastern border.

Kurdish officials cite security reasons for not allowing residents back, even though IS was driven out of the area late last year. At the same time, the Kurds have repeatedly said they intend to incorporate the captured territory into their own self-rule zone — even as they plan a referendum for outright independence later this month. That raises questions over the future of Sunni Arab villages like Hassan Shami.

Further south, Iranian-backed Shiite militias that captured mainly Sunni territory have also kept Sunnis from returning to strategic areas between Baghdad and the Iranian border or other areas Shiites consider vital.

Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, are faced with the depth and magnitude of their plight. The fear among Iraqi authorities and the Sunnis themselves is that new militant groups could take root unless the community's situation is improved.

Their cities and towns lie in partial ruins from the fight that drove IS out of most of the territories it seized in 2013 and 2014, from northern Iraq through the country's center and across the Sunni heartland of the western Anbar province. Thousands of Sunnis languish in detention for alleged links to the group.

The community has suffered massive displacement. Currently, 3.2 million people are displaced, the overwhelming majority Sunni Arabs. Another more than 2 million were displaced previously but have since returned home, according to the International Organization of Migration. Together that would be a staggeringly high proportion of the country's entire Sunni Arab population, which is generally estimated to make up 15 to 20 percent of Iraq's 37 million people.

Those who have returned — mainly to Anbar — must rebuild homes and communities, so far with little help from the government. Those still displaced either scramble to find housing or jobs or languish in camps. More than 400,000 of those displaced in nearly a year of fighting to liberate Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, are housed in 19 camps around the north.

Sunni Arabs have struggled since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which brought down Saddam Hussein and opened the door for the Shiite majority to gain power through elections. Sunnis were relegated to second-tier status, igniting an insurgency that brought years of violence and gave rise to al-Qaida and its successor, the Islamic State group. Over those years, divided Sunni politicians were ineffectual, and many Sunni professionals and businessmen left the country.

Some Sunnis talk of trying to form their own self-rule region like Kurdistan. But many are wary, knowing the Sunni-majority areas have far fewer resources.

"We Sunni Arabs are the weakest link in Iraq today. But trust me, this country will not be stable and strong again unless we assume a leading role in how the country is run," said Adnan Abu-Zeid, a school teacher from Mosul.

But this kind of bravado masks a widespread despair.

"Back in 2003, we wanted democracy and freedoms. Look where that got us," said an embittered Ghazi Hamad, displaced from Mosul. "We have now lowered our expectations. Any government is good for us, as long as it makes us feel safe. We will happily live on the sidelines."

Hossam Ahmed, a 24-year-old student displaced from Mosul, spoke nostalgically of Saddam, though he would have only been 11 when the autocrat was ousted. "I love Saddam Hussein. When he was in power, we, the people of Mosul, enjoyed full security," he said. "Iraq was finished when he left."

In a sign of resignation and distrust of Shiites, some Sunni Arab tribal chiefs in the north are even publicly campaigning for their areas to join the Kurdish region. The Kurds are overwhelmingly Sunni, but suspicions and divisions run along ethnic lines with Sunni Arabs.

The Baghdad government routinely says it wants the displaced to return, and official media celebrate when Sunni Arabs go back to their areas. Officials cite security concerns and lack of basic services as reasons why some do not return.

But Sunnis worry over signs of forced demographic change in particular strategic areas.

For example, Sunnis have had difficulty returning to parts of Diyala province, which borders both Iran and the Iraqi Kurdish autonomy zone.

A recent IOM survey found that nearly 80 percent of Sunnis displaced from two sampled towns in Diyala had tried to return home but were prevented, whether by Kurdish forces or Shiite militiamen.

Sheikh Iyad al-Laheibi, a local Sunni tribal chief, said he believes Shiite militias are engineering demographic changes in Diyala to secure a direct route from the Iranian border to Baghdad through the province.

"Who gets to return home has become a random practice," al-Laheibi said. He also pointed to frequent kidnappings of the Sunnis who remain, believed to be aimed at intimidating them into leaving.

In neighboring Salaheddin province, nearly half of those displaced from towns around the provincial capital Tikrit — Saddam's hometown — said they had been blocked from returning by Shiite militias, according to the IOM survey.

Southwest of Baghdad, thousands of Sunni Arabs have been unable to return to Jurf al-Sakhar, a Sunni pocket in mainly Shiite Babel province that controls the gateway to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala further south. Shiite militias drove IS militants from the area in 2014.

Sunni politicians' repeated calls for Sunni residents to be allowed back have been ignored. Last month, the Babel provincial government threatened legal proceedings against anyone demanding their return.

Infuriated Sunni lawmakers accused Babel of seeking to change the area's demographics. The U.N. said the Babel government was trying to intimidate politicians into silence.

In Khazir camp, Fawaz Ahmed, once a Health Ministry employee, spoke of his secret trips back to his home in Hassan Shami village. Kurdish fighters guarding the village don't allow visits, so Ahmed and others obtain permits to leave the camp, ostensibly to visit relatives elsewhere, and then sneak into their homes.

"My heart keeps telling me to go back and look," he said, squatting on a large rock at the edge of the camp facing his village. Below, in a ravine running parallel to the Khazir river, youths played soccer on dirt fields as the sky grew darker.

"There is only one question on my mind: Why can't I go home?" he said.

In Irbil, Naseradeen Saeed Sindi, the Kurdish official in charge of "Kurdistani areas outside the region," had no direct answer. He said security concerns prevent return for the moment. He also suggested that such captured areas would be made part of the Kurdish self-rule region.

"Turkmen, Christians and Arabs will have rights equal to those enjoyed by the Kurds under the region's law," he said.

In Khazir and other camps, residents languish, dealing with sizzling heat and long hours of boredom in tents lined up in monotonous rows. They talk longingly of "awda" — Arabic for "return."

"One's village is like his mother. You can never abandon her," said Ahmed Hassan Khalaf, another native of Hassan Shami and a father of 13 who is in his mid-70s and in poor health. "We used to grow tomatoes on the land on which this camp is built," he said, grapping a fist-load of pebbles from the ground outside his tent.

Then he murmured, barely audible in despair, "Oh God, oh God the compassionate."