THE LEVANT – Shiite Turkmen families from Tal Afar in Northern Iraq have been fleeing south to the Shiite holy city of Najaf to escape so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorist group’s onslaught in the north of the country.
After the Takfiri group captured vast swaths of territory in northern Iraq, thousands of Turkmen were forced to flee.
An estimated 50,000 newly displaced Shiite Turkmen have fled to Najaf, which houses the holy shrine of Imam Ali (PBUH), the first Imam of Shiites as well as son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad.
“We don’t have hostility with anybody. We were intimate friends and neighbors. We didn’t know what they (the militants) mean by ordering us to leave. Is it because we are Shiite Muslims? I don’t know,” said Mohammed Noor, a refugee from Tal Afar.
Turkmen account for Iraq’s third largest ethnic minority, after the Arabs and Kurds, and had been living primarily in areas where some of the most intense clashes have taken place.
With the capture of Sinjar on Aug. 3 by ISIL terrorists, hundreds of families fled to the Sinjar Mountains with only the clothes on their back, trying to escape beheading and rape of their women.
The Turkmen families also fled Tal Afar, part of a swath of territory across five provinces that fell to ISIL-led militants in an offensive that began June 9, for the nearby town of Sinjar.
They then moved to camps on the outskirts of Iraq’s autonomous three-province Kurdish region.
But land routes to the Shiite-dominated south, which is markedly more stable than the conflict-hit north and west, are mostly controlled by militants led by ISIL, the Al-Qaeda splinter group.
And Kurdish authorities have blocked those fleeing the conflict in northern Iraq from entering the autonomous region without a resident sponsor.
They have also barred them from the regional capital Irbil entirely, meaning they cannot get to the airport to fly south.
“When we arrived at the camp, they provided us with food, but we do not want to live in a camp,” said Murtada Qassem, who fled Tal Afar to Sinjar, and then later to a camp bordering the Kurdish region.
“We want to go to the south, to get jobs and better housing,” the father of seven said.
Kadhim Naqi, a 64-year-old with nine children, added that his family wanted to move south because “there is no war or dispute there. … It is more stable.”
Around 1.2 million people have been displaced within Iraq by unrest this year, including hundreds of thousands who fled their homes following the militant offensive.
Many have sought refuge in hotels in Kurdistan as tourists, thereby evading the requirement for a local sponsor, but a large number have been prevented from entering the autonomous area because they have not found a resident to support their entry.