Tens of thousands of Iraq’s Sunnis fled their home regions over the past year to escape the brutal rule of the Islamic State group. The militants swept over much of the north and west of Iraq, overrunning Sunni-majority regions all the way down to the doorstep of Baghdad.
Shiite-led security forces and militias made up of Shiite volunteers have since driven the militants out of some of those areas. But the Sunni residents have mostly been prevented from returning, on the grounds that the regions are not yet safe. In many cases, they have been unable to return because their homes have been destroyed in the fighting or blown up by militiamen.
Sunnis who stayed put and endured Islamic State governance face a worse predicament when Shiite forces recapture their areas. They are accused of helping the militants, often their homes are blown up, men jailed or entire families banished, with their properties given to Shiites. . . .
The sectarian shift comes on top of one that occurred in the wave of vicious sectarian fighting sparked in 2006, when Sunni militants blew up the Shiite shrine of Imam al-Askari in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad. That conflict became a virtual civil war, and it purged Baghdad of most mixed neighborhoods, leaving it sharply divided between Shiite and Sunni districts.
In Diyala province, northeast of the capital, Islamic State militants have almost completely been driven out, but Sunni Arab families have not been allowed back, said Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni lawmaker from the province. The province is a major route for Iranian pilgrims traveling overland to shrines in Iraq.
“They say they will only allow ‘loyal’ residents to go back. This is an excuse to change the demographics of the province,” al-Dahlaki said.