Erbil— Ali Ahmed Hassan, 31, sits on the floor of his one-room portable metal home in the sprawling Baharka refugee camp on the northern outskirts of Erbil, reflecting on the sectarian warfare that has forced him to flee with his family to the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. Horrific bloodshed and reprisal killings—inflicted by the Sunni extremists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, as well as the Shia militias—has torn apart his homeland and is leaving long-term, festering wounds, he says. Now he would rather build a future as a minority under Kurdish control than return to his home. Indeed, the muddy streets of refugee camps like this one are some of the last places in Iraq where you can still find multi-ethnic and religious coexistence.
An emergency-room doctor by training, Hassan, a Sunni Arab, first fled Iraq’s Diyala province after the Iranian-backed Shia militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq carried out a bloody campaign of attacks against Sunni civilians in 2012. He then settled in the Sunni-majority city of Tikrit, until the atrocities that followed the 2014 blitzkrieg by ISIS forced him to escape once again, to the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
“[ISIS] came to that area in the name of Islam, but the religion doesn’t say you should kill kids and women,” he says, with despair etched on his face. “Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] requires all government employees to work in their positions, and I couldn’t work under their rule.” Now Hassan is unable to apply his life-saving skills to support his family. Instead, he uses the medical tools he brought with him and the meager supplies he can get from local hospitals and charities to treat camp residents.
“I have interviewed with the Iraqi government health ministry, and they clearly don’t care about us,” he says bitterly. “[All sides] have planted a division between us, Shia and Sunni.”
Hassan feels betrayed by a Baghdad government that panders to Shia interests, even as it battles the brutal fundamentalist Sunni authoritarians who have seized vast swaths of northern and western Iraq. His experience of repeated flight from a continually morphing conflict is common in Baharka camp, which stretches as far as the eye can see.
“It’s very clear that sectarianism has defined Iraqi politics and the security situation since 2003,” says Renad Mansour, an Iraq specialist at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “We are still experiencing the initial shock and ripples of the [US] invasion.” Mansour argues that religious divisions have opened up fundamental questions about what it means to be Iraqi. Even after the first wave of sectarian conflict receded, both the former government of Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, which was Shia-dominated and close to Iran, and Sunni tribes increasingly described each other as not Iraqi. The current government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been unwilling or unable to contain that trend.
Mansour points out that those divisions emerged under US control, and that the American occupation instilled inter-religious and ethnic conflict, though he contends that the US troop surge of 2007-08 and American pressure on Maliki in the initial period of his government temporarily stemmed it.