ERBIL (Reuters) - The four men helped each other clamber up the far side of a trench into the no-man’s land between frontlines in northern Iraq, fearing what lay ahead but unable to turn back.
Moving forward under a pounding sun, they carefully navigated around landmines until reaching the border of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate hours later, according to an account of the journey related by one of the men, Abu Muhannad.
They are among dozens - some Arabs in the area say hundreds - of mainly Arab Sunnis who have been banished from areas under Kurdish control in recent months as suspected Islamic State sympathisers, a measure some Arabs say is creating dangerous ethnic polarisation in areas recaptured from the insurgents.
“They (the Kurds) drove us to the frontline and said go to Daesh,” Abu Muhannad said by telephone, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State, also known in English as ISIS or ISIL. “We got out of the car, they gave us each a bottle of water, and we went.”
Abu Muhannad denies being a member or supporter of Islamic State. He says he was expelled from his village after being detained for three weeks, with no way to exonerate himself.
“It’s not a question of guilt or innocence,” he said. “They want to make it a Kurdish area for themselves.”
While it is not clear how extensive such expulsions from Kurdish-held areas have been, Reuters spoke to four people who were deported separately from the Sinjar and Zummar areas, some of them in batches of more than a dozen. Relatives and friends of others who were expelled said the practice was widespread.
Two Kurdish security sources in the area confirmed expulsions had taken place but described the practice as limited.
One Kurdish intelligence source in the area said the expulsions were a “preventative” measure and said the reason suspected Islamic State sympathisers were not formally tried first was that no law existed under which to prosecute them.
Approximately 50 individuals had been thrown out, he said, all of whom would have received long prison sentences if there were a way to convict them: “Expulsion is more merciful”.
A spokesman for the Kurdish region’s Security Council refused to comment on an “allegation without any basis” that suspects had been summarily expelled, but added: “However, we have made it clear that we will not tolerate any activities of ISIS or ISIS affiliates or sympathizers in our areas.”
Islamic State employs extreme violence in all the parts of Iraq and Syria it has seized, but its reign in the Sinjar and Zummar areas of Iraq was bloody even by its standards.
The area’s population includes Yazidis, members of an ancient religious sect, declared by the militants to be pagans who must be exterminated. The group said it would kill all adult male Yazidis who did not accept Islam, and enslave women and girls as concubines for its fighters.
Thousands of people were killed and raped. U.S. President Barack Obama invoked the prospect of genocide to justify launching a campaign of air strikes against Islamic State, which still continues.
Although many Islamic State fighters were outsiders, the group also won some local recruits, in part by portraying itself as the saviour of Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs, many of whom believe they are marginalized both by the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad and by the Kurds who rule in the north.Security forces from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region finally routed Islamic State fighters from the area last December in a widely-hailed counter-offensive, and since then Kurdish officials have mostly emphasised reconciliation.
Earlier this year, the Kurdish region’s president, Massoud Barzani, invited Sunni Arab tribal leaders from Sinjar and Zummar to discuss the future.
“Those who committed crimes must pay the price, but in a legal way,” Barzani told his newest subjects. “Those who have done no wrong must not be held accountable for the crimes of others.”
When the speech was over, the sheikhs flattered the Kurdish leader and vowed to give up members of their tribe who had cooperated with Islamic State. One of them even offered Barzani the gift of a steed.
Kurdish officials say most hardline militants were killed or fled the area when it was captured, but some Islamic State supporters remain and must be dealt with.
Committees were formed that have travelled to villages making note of residents’ needs and also drawing up lists of those suspected of collaborating with Islamic State.
“It is no small number,” said Ahmed Khalaf, the Arab representative on one of the committees, which has compiled a list of some 500 suspects from 76 villages.
Khalaf acknowledged that sometimes the wrong people could be arrested because informants fabricated accusations to settle personal scores. He said only a few people had been expelled, and only on a temporary basis.
Some Arabs say they believe the Islamic State threat is being used as a pretext to purge them from disputed territories that Kurds want to annex to their autonomous region, with a view to seceding from Iraq some day, a highly sensitive subject.
An Arab who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals said some people who had been happy to see the militants go would now welcome them back.
One of those expelled from the Zummar area with a group of around 20 people, a 41-year-old ironmonger, openly echoed the sentiment: “If the Islamic State is victorious, God willing, we will return home.”
Editing by Michael Georgy and Peter Graff