Iraqi civilians fleeing fighting in Ramadi crossed the Bzebiz Bridge, which offers passage into Baghdad from Anbar Province. Credit Karim Kadim/Associated Press
AMIRIYAT FALLUJA, Iraq — On one side of a rickety bridge that spans a narrow stretch of the Euphrates River were panicked families on the run from Islamic State forces, hoping to escape Anbar Province and reach safety in Baghdad. On the other side were Iraqi Army officers and Shiite militiamen, under orders to keep the bridge closed because of fears that militants could slip in among the displaced civilians.
“It’s like the other side is Europe and this is Asia,” said Ehab Talib, 27, who was waiting to meet relatives fleeing the fighting in Anbar, the Sunni-dominated region whose capital, Ramadi, recently fell to the Islamic State.
With new waves of civilians fleeing violence in Anbar there are now more internally displaced Iraqis, nearly three million, than there were at the height of the bloody sectarian fighting that followed the American invasion, when millions of Iraqis were able to flee to Syria. That door is closed because of that country’s own civil war. And now doors in Iraq are closing, too, worsening sectarian tensions as the Shiite authorities restrict where fleeing Sunnis can seek safety.
“We are all Iraqis,” said Marwan Abdul, a doctor’s assistant, standing outside his mobile clinic here. “This wouldn’t happen in any other country.”
The violence unleashed by the Sunni militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has hit Sunnis disproportionately. Nearly 85 percent of the Iraqis on the run are Sunnis, and they often find themselves seeking safety in Shiite-dominated areas, including Baghdad, where, as at the bridge here, they are frequently treated as security threats rather than as suffering fellow citizens.
Iraqis who had fled Ramadi, which recently fell to the Islamic State, on the outskirts of Baghdad. The Shiite authorities in the capital have started restricting the entry of displaced Sunnis. Credit Reuters
In seeking funding from donors, United Nations officials have stressed that containing the crisis is not only a moral imperative but also crucial in fostering reconciliation and setting the conditions for long-term stability, should ISIS be defeated.
Rather than seizing on the crisis as an opportunity to win Sunnis, a minority in Iraq, to the government side, the Shiite authorities in Baghdad have acted in a manner, critics say, that has worsened the country’s sectarian divide, risking the alienation of young Sunni men in particular by restricting their movements within the country.
On days that the bridge is open, for instance, not everyone can reach safe areas. To get to Baghdad, Anbar civilians need to have a sponsor in the capital who can reach them and escort them into the city, as Mr. Talib was trying to do. Some Baghdad residents have exploited this system, selling sponsorship to the displaced for as much as $700, according to the International Rescue Committee, an aid organization. The group warned this week that the strict security checks and chokeholds at checkpoints near Baghdad are forcing people to return to areas where fighting is raging.
Even in the northern Kurdish region, long a haven for civilians fleeing Iraq’s turmoil, the authorities are reluctant to accept large numbers of Arabs, worsening the country’s ethnic divisions and adding to the sense that the very cohesion of Iraq is being pulled apart.
Aid agencies, already overwhelmed by the refugee crisis in Syria, say they are running out of money to cope with the growing problems in Iraq. A $500 million donation to the United Nations by Saudi Arabia last year ran out at the end of March, and other funds are quickly dwindling. The United Nations says it needs another $500 million for Iraq to get through to the end of this year, and it plans to release a new response plan and an appeal for donations at an event in Brussels on June 4.
“We are tapped out of money,” said Lise Grande, the senior United Nations official in charge of humanitarian efforts in Iraq.
The situation has also further complicated the challenge of reconciling Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq amid efforts to defeat ISIS.
Government officials in Iraq have said that concerns over a security threat from internally displaced people are legitimate because the Islamic State is deeply entrenched in Anbar and counts on some support from local citizens. Some officials have even blamed displaced Anbar residents for a recent round of car bomb attacks.
Valerie Amos, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs at the United Nations, in a recent statement to the Security Council, detailed a grim list of circumstances faced by civilians in Islamic State areas, including sexual slavery and the forcible recruitment of children to become militants.
“The humanitarian outlook in Iraq remains deeply worrying,” she said. “The number of people in need of assistance has grown sevenfold in just under a year. This number is likely to increase further before the end of the year, as conflict continues and as fear of sectarian-motivated retaliation spreads through newly accessible areas.”
Ms. Amos also criticized the government’s response to the crisis, saying, “Restrictions on the freedom of movement of civilians by security forces and armed groups are growing worse, limiting the ability of civilians to flee the conflict and enter safer territory or to return home after areas have been retaken.”
In Baghdad, thousands of Sunni civilians who fled violence in Anbar are living in 32 mosques scattered around the city, where they are essentially quarantined.
“The government, if they see any identification from Anbar, they will ask them, ‘What are you doing?’ ” said Imad Jassim, the director of the Umm al-Qura mosque, the capital’s largest Sunni mosque, where about 900 people from Anbar are living.
Mr. Jassim advises them not to leave the mosque premises. “To be honest, we are afraid,” he said. “Maybe some militias are hanging around and could kill them.”
The Iraqi authorities, he said, “have done nothing to help the people of Anbar.” If the authorities took a different approach, he said, “they would gain the support of all the Sunni people.”
“They missed this great opportunity to be close to the Sunni people,” he said.
One man living in the mosque, Khamis Jassim, 45, said he had fought for months against the Islamic State in Ramadi before leaving just before the city fell. Many of his neighbors stayed, he said, rather than seek safety in Shiite-dominated areas.
“Most of them would prefer to stay with Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “They told me that if I went to Baghdad maybe I would be killed.”
At the bridge on a recent afternoon, dozens of residents of Baghdad, clutching identification papers, waited for passage to open so they could bring relatives and friends to the capital.
Frustrated with the government’s approach, Omar Mansour, who had come to the bridge as an escort, said: “This is a very good opportunity for the Iraqi government. If there is ISIS over there, they could catch them.”
But, looking across the river, he said, “There are families over there and they are scared from both sides — ISIS and the Iraqi Army.”
Standing nearby, though, was a Shiite militiaman named Eissa al-Jabiry who voiced the anger that is deeply felt among many in Iraq’s Shiite majority. “Let them suffer more,” he said. “They deserve this. This is their fault.”
Waving toward the river, he said: “They were supporting Daesh. The men were supporting Daesh, and see — their families are now suffering.”
Officials are preparing for the crisis to get only worse as the Iraqi government, allied militias and the international coalition led by the United States prepare for offensives against the Islamic State in Anbar and then Mosul, in the north. United Nations officials believe that more than one million more civilians could be displaced from operations in Anbar and elsewhere, before a campaign for Mosul even begins.
“During the upcoming military campaigns there are going to be enormous humanitarian consequences, and maybe even a disaster,” Ms. Grande said. “How do we prepare for it?”