Shattered by war, Sunni Arabs despair over future in Iraq

KHAZIR CAMP, Iraq (AP) — 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…

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