May 23, 2019
By John Davison
AL-HOL CAMP, Syria (Reuters) – Iraqi farmer Shaker Salih says he feared Islamic State, but feared its defeat even more. His problem is persuading people to believe that he did not support the jihadists.
When Iraqi forces drove Islamic State from his home town in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, Salih left with the Sunni Muslim extremist group, known to its detractors as Daesh. He then stayed as long he could in its shrinking, self-declared caliphate.
“We thought militias would kill us for living under Daesh, so we fled,” said Salih, 49, referring to Shi’ite Muslim paramilitaries that helped defeat IS. “That’s why we stayed with Daesh. We were used to them and knew what to do to survive.”
He now lives in the sprawling, guarded al-Hol displacement camp across the border in Syria, where among 70,000 fellow Iraqis, Syrians and others, there are thousands of die-hard IS supporters.
Some are passengers in his car, which he uses as a taxi to make a living by charging one dollar a trip.
“If God allows, the caliphate will return,” one Syrian woman at the camp, who gave her name as Fatima, told Reuters.
Iraq is preparing to bring home its citizens from al-Hol, who number more than 30,000. But it is struggling to decide what to do with them – and how to identify those with genuine IS links and those simply caught up in its caliphate.
The difficulty of distinguishing those groups, sometimes from the same clans and communities now in al-Hol, means that many like Salih face long-term detention under plans the government is weighing up.
Baghdad recently abandoned the idea of building a separate internment camp for those coming from al-Hol after aid agencies on which it relies to support hundreds of thousands of displaced people opposed it, rights and aid workers say.
The latest Iraqi proposal is to put them in buildings and more permanent structures in isolated areas guarded by security forces, according to officials, aid workers and rights groups.
“Camps are temporary, people can’t live there forever. The only solution is to designate areas monitored and protected by the state and provide services and work on reintegrating these people,” said Ali Bayati, a member of Iraq’s semi-official High Commission for Human Rights.
Aid agencies have said they will not provide support for a new internment camp or detention zone, according to several aid workers, due to the risk of rights violations. They are seeking instead to put people who pass security screening into existing displacement camps, according to a plan seen by Reuters.
Iraq’s immigration and displacement ministry and the prime minister’s office declined to comment on current plans for the al-Hol captives.
Since most of those in al-Hol emerged from the last sliver of land held by Islamic State in eastern Syria, it is not easy to sort those with extremist views from non-radicalised people and ensure the latter do not change their views.
If Baghdad gets it wrong, global security could again be at risk, Western officials have said, as it was when Islamic State – a reincarnation of al Qaeda groups that had taken years to suppress – took hold in Sunni areas of Iraq among communities that felt persecuted by the Shi’ite-dominated government.
Iraqis with clear links to IS, such as militants and their families, have mostly been detained and some of them have been transferred to Iraq to face trial.