Iraqis in a northern town still traumatized by memories of the Islamic State group feared more violence Tuesday after hostilities between the military and a local militia erupted, people internally displaced by the fighting said.
Tensions reached a fever pitch when Iraq's military launched an offensive in Sinjar district Sunday to clear out armed elements of the YBS, a local militia comprised largely of minority Yazidis.
The YBS has ties to the insurgent Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, a separatist movement banned in Turkey.
The heavy fighting prompted over 3,000 people, most of them Yazidis, to flee toward the Kurdish-run north. It wasn't clear if there were any dead or wounded in the fighting: Iraqi officials have released no figures and have not commented on casualties.
Fighting ceased Tuesday and the Iraqi army said it had re-established control of Sinjar. But the violence and subsequent displacement dealt a blow to Baghdad's efforts to encourage more Yazidis to return to their ancestral homeland after years of war.
An agreement was brokered by the United Nations in October 2020 between Baghdad and the Kurdish-run government to implement order in the area. Under that agreement, the federal police are the sole state authority.
The accord has not proven successful. Critics have said this is because it did not consult powerful local forces in Sinjar or even Yazidi leaders. Local residents, who also include Arab Sunnis, are also deeply divided.
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Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir al-Shammari, deputy commander of Iraq's Joint Operations Command, told a news conference in Sinjar that Iraqi forces have imposed security and law and order and have opened all the roads in the district.
"The goal of these operations was to impose the (rule of) law and security to secure a safe environment so that we can rebuild Sinjar and return the displaced.”
But Yazidis, many displaced now for a second time, are reluctant to return.
Most of the displaced fled north to the Kurdish-run region where they were distributed across different camps. Many first fled in 2014 after IS's brutal onslaught and returned in recent years to rebuild their homes.
The memories are still fresh in Sewe’s mind. His was among the dozens of families who made their way to the Chemishko camp in Zakho on Monday. He only gave The Associated Press his first name.
“It is the second time that we escaped,” he said. “We don’t know where to go, we don’t have a place to go, and we don’t know where we are going now.”
The YBS was created in 2014 with assistance from the PKK. They proved instrumental in driving out IS elements from the area after the collapse of the Iraqi army. The YBS has since remained a powerful local force in the area, citing deep mistrust of the federal government forces deployed to protect the area.
The Iraqi army said the aim of the offensive has been to reassert state authority in response to the YBS erecting checkpoints and preventing citizens from returning to their homes.
But most residents expect more violence.
“When we went back to our home we found it was impossible to live there,” said Rashid Barakat, now displaced in the Chemishko camp. “The army was attacking (the YBS) and the (YBS) was hitting them back, and we were stuck in between."