Ramadi, Iraq – In Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province, residents struggling to rebuild after years of Islamic State group rule are adamant: there will be no return for the families of jihadists.
Omar Shihan al-Alwani, who fought against the group, warned that revenge awaits the relatives of IS fighters who try to come back.
“Anbar is a tribal society. If someone’s brother or father is killed, he takes blood revenge by killing someone from the murderer’s tribe,” Alwani said.
The bearded 35-year-old wore a red-chequered headscarf as he sat in his traditional reception room, two months since Iraq declared victory over IS.
“We do not want IS fighters to come back and start a spiral of revenge,” he said.
“We’re totally against that. If they come back then blood will flow and neither tribes nor military operations will be able to stop it.” That sentiment is a far cry from the support the jihadists once enjoyed in the western desert region.
The radical group’s predecessor emerged from Iraq’s Sunni heartland in 2006 and was welcomed by many Anbaris, who saw it as offering protection against Shiite-dominated authorities in Baghdad.
The jihadists were kicked out by pro-government forces, but five years later, in late 2013, tribal fighters allied with the group revolted against Baghdad.
The jihadists seized the chance to take over large areas of territory.
But many tribes turned against IS, especially as its brutality became apparent.
The group imposed a hardline interpretation of Islam, sending religious “police” to flog people in public and executing members of tribes who refused to pledge allegiance.
Today residents, still counting the cost of IS rule in blood and destruction, insist they do not want to repeat the errors of the past.
“They are outcasts and society rejects them,” said Khamis al-Dahal, 60, as he got his hair cut at a barbershop.
“The government is not going to force us to accept back people who killed men, women and children in Anbar.” Some take a more moderate line – but are still very wary.
“We are not against them returning but the timing is bad and would risk provoking unrest and a return to bloodshed in the streets,” said former tribal fighter Omar Ibrahim.
“They should be in a camp under the supervision of the Iraqi government and they should receive daily instruction on how to live together and to combat extremist ideologies.” Some are already living in camps.
Currently around 380 families of jihadists, women and children, are detained in two Anbar camps where conditions are harsh.
Late last year US advocacy group Refugees International reported that women and girls believed to be linked to IS jihadists had been sexually abused by camp guards.
Those who do leave often have nowhere to go.
In the city of Ramadi, residents said houses belonging to the families of IS jihadists have been destroyed – reprisal for a similar tactic the jihadists used against their enemies.
No one was willing to say who was responsible.
The city is still heavily scarred by fighting and airstrikes by a US-led coalition during a battle that saw it recaptured by government troops in early 2016.
Erfan Ali, Iraq representative for the UN Human Settlements Programme, said that over 8,000 homes are destroyed or badly damaged, as are some 1,200 in the city of Fallujah.
While the jihadists’ self-declared cross-border “caliphate” lies in tatters, many still fear Iraq’s weak central government will not be able to prevent their return indefinitely.
Such is the fear that some residents have still not dared remove signs of the group’s presence.
The graffiti remains daubed across the walls of their houses: “Property of the Islamic State”.
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