Her baby was coming, but the woman couldn’t move.
Asra Khalaf Hamid, a waifish 27-year-old, sat on steps outside a mosque on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, wincing from contractions. Inside, around 40 families who had also fled fighting in western Anbar province last month had set up a makeshift home.
On the gate to the street was a large padlock. The displaced families were not allowed to leave the premises, except in emergencies. Hamid’s family said they were too afraid to travel to the hospital alone, anyway, and they were waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
“We need protection to guarantee we’ll stay alive on the road,” said Anwar Hamid, her 35-year-old brother-in-law.
The scene in the Ghazaliya neighborhood offered a glimpse into the plight facing Iraq’s most recently displaced. More than 100,000 people left their homes after intense fighting between government troops and Islamic State militants in Sunni-dominated Anbar in April, rushing to Baghdad and the Shiite-dominated provinces of the south. Thousands more are seeking to flee Anbar after intense fighting in recent days in the city of Ramadi.
They are just the latest people forced from their homes by the conflict in Iraq, where 2.8 million people have been internally displaced since the start of 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.
But the newcomers have fled the bloodshed in Anbar only to be met with suspicion and hostility. Some officials in Baghdad have linked the influx of Sunnis to a wave of car bombings. The displaced complain of harassment by security forces and powerful Shiite militias who worry that the people reaching Baghdad may have ties to the Sunni extremists in the Islamic State. The capital’s morgue has reported an increase in suspected sectarian killings.
“What’s happening to us is a slow death: terror, hunger, no money, no home,” said Khalid Ahmed, 41, from the Tamim neighborhood of Ramadi, who fled with his wife and three children last month. “If we stay there, Islamic State will kill us; here, the militias.”
On arrival, the families were asked to hand over their identity cards to the mosque management, preventing them from traveling around Baghdad, with its numerous checkpoints where IDs are scrutinized. The imam said the security measure was requested by the police.
“They aren’t allowed to go out for their own safety,” said Majid Hamid, the imam of the mosque in Ghazaliya, a mixed but Sunni-dominated neighborhood notorious for bloodletting during the sectarian conflict that occurred after the 2003 U.S. invasion. “We are afraid people will target them for sectarian reasons. The families are terrified of what is unknown.”
By the time arrangements were made for Asra Hamid to leave the mosque and an ambulance arrived, she had been in labor for more than four hours. When she finally made it to the hospital, her unborn baby had died.
The family did not blame the mosque, which paid for the woman’s hospital treatment, but they said her story was indicative of the difficulties facing the newly displaced.
Residents of two majority Shiite neighborhoods in the capital, Hayy al-Amal and Bayya, said displaced families settling there have largely been driven out. Their homes were targeted with explosives designed to make a large sound but not inflict casualties, they said.
The neighborhoods have been shattered by regular car bombings, making the arrival of people from the Sunni province where the Islamic State has a firm foothold very sensitive. Residents say they worry extremist militants will infiltrate the city by arriving with the displaced.
Making matters worse, the Islamic State has claimed bombings in the name of the displaced Sunnis.
For their first two weeks in Baghdad, the extended Hamid family, which includes 14 people, had stayed with a friend in the majority-Shiite neighborhood of Zafraniya. They say security forces regularly searched their friend’s house during that period and questioned them on their movements. After they heard about two incidents in which Sunnis from Anbar province were killed elsewhere in Baghdad, the Hamid family left. “We couldn’t stay there and put my friend’s family in danger,” Anwar Hamid said.
The security forces say the killings are isolated incidents.
Saad Maan, spokesman for Iraq’s Interior Ministry, said 14 killings of Sunnis from Anbar in Baghdad in recent weeks are under investigation. Those include the slaying of seven members of the Albunimr tribe as well as four other men in the largely Shiite neighborhood of Bayaa.
Sheik Naim al-Gaoud, an Albunimr tribal leader and parliamentarian, said that one day last month, at midnight, three gunmen came to a house occupied by a family who had been displaced from Anbar earlier in the year and asked them to leave by the morning.
The family decided to do so, but before their departure, the gunmen returned. At 5 a.m., they kidnapped eight men from the family, he said. Women and children were left behind.
The next day, seven of the men were found shot dead, an eighth critically wounded. Gaoud complained his tribe was being persecuted, even though it fiercely fought Islamic State militants in Anbar. Some 300 families from his tribe who were living in the capital have all left, he said.
Meanwhile, the number of unidentified bodies turning up in the Baghdad morgue has risen, according to the head of the morgue, Ziad Ali — seen as a sign of an increase in sectarian killings.
He declined to give exact numbers but said that instead of receiving about one unidentified body a day, there were now around five times that. “Every day is different, but there’s an increase,” he said.
In a recent statement, the Islamic State said six bombings in the capital were in revenge for the killings of displaced Sunnis.
While bombings and extrajudicial killings have exacerbated tensions, a cross-section of people in the capital have also rallied to help the displaced.
At the Sunni Burhan Addin mosque in the Jamia neighborhood, a group of Shiite volunteers has brought new supplies for the 120 families here, who have a greater degree of freedom but must still request permission to leave the premises. Helicopters circled low overhead one recent day.
“It’s normal,” said Ramzi Jassim Abu Seif, who runs the camp. “For security.”
Families complain that some of the displaced have been turned back from Baghdad, where a strict sponsorship system is in place, requiring families to have a guarantor in the city to vouch for them before they enter.
“They treat them like they are not Iraqi,” Abu Seif said. Security forces contend that the measures are necessary to stop Islamic State militants from sneaking in with the displaced.
“It’s sensitive and important,” said Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, of the issue of displaced families in a recent news conference in the southern city of Najaf.
“These families were threatened, and it’s the duty of all Iraqis to look after them, but there is also a security angle. These provinces have a lot of Daesh” or Islamic State fighters, he said. “It’s possible that infiltrators will come with them. It’s not right to punish innocent people, but there need to be security checks.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.