In recent weeks the world’s attention has fixed on the plight of the Christians and Yezidis of northern Iraq as hundreds of thousands have fled advancing Islamic militants to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan. Yet across the country the same number again of Iraqis have fled their homes since January to other regions, receiving far less attention and support. While the UN and NGOs are trying to reach them with aid, many feel forgotten and complain of preferential treatment.
Following the start of a northward surge in late June by the jihadist group calling themselves the Islamic State (IS), the international community has rushed to the support of Kurdistan.
Semi-autonomous Kurdistan - with a population of just over five million and an existing caseload of 220,000 Syrian refugees - has been the base of the relief effort. The region certainly needs support - it is now hosting what is believed to be more than 700,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), many of whom endured gruelling journeys to reach safety.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has mounted what it is calling its “largest single aid push in a decade”, with a plan to send in more than 2,000 tons of tents and other items, and governments from around the world, who in recent years had wound down their assistance for Iraq, are also flying in large quantities of aid and military equipment.
Yet Kurdistan is not the only part of Iraq where people require help. Away from the glare of the international media being shone on the tented camps of Yezidis in Dohuk, another 700,000 people are currently homeless (see chart above).
Among them are some 70,000 sheltering in the holy Shia cities of Karbala and Najaf. They are being supported mainly by mosques and local associations, who have made available accommodation usually used by religious pilgrims, the Iraqi Red Crescent, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
There have also been small contributions from UN agencies, such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), who have provided water and other supplies, but people there told IRIN their needs were desperate.
Abdul Ghafour Ahmed, a member of Iraq’s long-persecuted Turkoman ethnic group, told how he and his family of nine fled their home in Tal Afar, west of the city of Mosul, in early June, but were blocked, he said, from entering the majority Sunni Kurdistan, so he headed south to Najaf by road.
“After ISIS swept through our village, we tried to go to Kurdistan, but they didn’t receive us for being from the Shiite sect,” the 67-year-old said. While IRIN was not able to verify his story, there have been growing allegations that the Kurdish government has turned away some of those fleeing. “They were receiving only Kurds and Sunnis. We spent four days at the main border entrance to Kurdistan, but got nothing.”
Muhsin Al-Timimi, the head of the human rights committee at Najaf Provincial Council, also told IRIN that not enough aid had come to his part of Iraq. “We demand international organizations to stand equally with IDPs all over Iraq. They are giving more to those in Kurdistan and no one cares about us,” he said.
But Najaf and Karbala are at least safe. Large swathes of the governorates of Nineveh, Anbar, Saleheddin and Diyala are overrun by armed groups with front lines moving on a daily basis. As battles rage between militants and government forces, civilians are being killed, injured and cut off from humanitarian supplies.
The situation is particularly acute in a small Shia Turkomen town of Amirli in the Tuz District of Saleheddin Governorate, located mid-way between Baghdad and Kurdistan’s capital Erbil, under siege from IS.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 people have been surrounded and trapped, and all roads in and out blocked. The population has formed a local army and is defending itself against the militants, with some support from the Iraqi security forces, but as the weeks go on, their resolve is weakening and they are running low on food, water, fuel and medical supplies. During the sweltering Iraqi summer, where temperatures reach 50 degrees, families sleep on the roofs of their homes to keep cool, but with constant rocket attacks they must stay inside.
“People are dying because of the lack of clean water, while diarrhoea and vomiting are common,” Dr Vasser Mahmoud*, who is volunteering in the area, told IRIN by phone to Amirli.
“The children are malnourished. There isn’t enough milk for the babies. Sometimes I can only make a mix of sugar water to nourish them and give them energy,” he said.
A few people have been airlifted out of the town by the Iraqi Air Force, but a recent negotiated attempt to move a group of children, women and elderly people towards Sulymaniah went wrong and as many as 30 people are reported to have been killed trying to escape.
“All the people are hungry, my family tell me they are only eating a little bit because we need to save food for the other days,” said Muhammed Essmat Ibrahim, a board member of the Iraqi Red Crescent, who is based in Baghdad but whose relatives are in Amirli.
According to the UN, which says it has been seeking a way to get food from Amirli for several weeks, the Iraqi Air Force has been providing limited humanitarian assistance through airdrops and the Iraqi Red Crescent, though the last delivery was over a month ago.
“The Iraqi government has been trying to assist them. It’s not like no-one is trying to assist them,” explained Kieran Dwyer, chief of communications for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OHCA), but he said the UN was unable to get physical access to the town due to security.
Those in towns such as Karbala and Amirli increasingly accuse the international community of preferential treatment. Zaid Al-Ali, an Iraqi lawyer and the author of The Struggle for Iraq's Future, agreed that people did not see the response as equal.
“There is a complaint that Kurdistan is getting preferential treatment compared to Baghdad, no question. That’s from among officials and from among the general population,” he said.
Al-Ali added that a number of other places had also been, and were still under, IS control, but he said the international media and to a large extent governments had “mostly ignored” them and focused on Sinjar and Kurdistan.
NGOs, too, are increasingly aware that their coverage is not seen to be equal. “I think the humanitarian community as a whole is not doing enough to access the areas where the most vulnerable persons are,” said Juan Gabriel Wells, deputy country director for Jordan and Kurdistan for French NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF).
“These are areas where people are affected by fighting, like Anbar, Saleheddin, Kirkuk and Diyala... [and] I think that a lot of these areas have been neglected not just now, but for far too long."
International NGOs, often perceived to be more at risk, are increasingly seeking to work with local partners to improve coverage across the country. Saleh Dabbakeh, ICRC spokesman in Baghdad, told IRIN that ICRC teams - including international staff - were working in 12 out of Iraq’s 19 governorates, though he admitted that Amirli was too dangerous to reach due to the siege.
However, he said they had managed to negotiate some access to deliver medical and other supplies into Anbar, the province where IS (ISIS at the time) began its advance in January and from where 600,000 people have been displaced, and into other areas under control of armed groups.
“We continue to talk to all parties involved in this fighting and armed conflict in order to be able to access areas,” he said. “But if we can’t reach an area, we do the next best thing and supply to places where people are being displaced.”
Dabbakeh welcomed the significant international response for the displaced in Kurdistan, which has included a lump-sum donation of US$500million from Saudi Arabia, but added: “Yes the minorities from the Nineveh plain have been victimized, but we should not forget that there are all kinds of other people that have also been victims and also been displaced.”
Defending the UN’s lack of aid operations outside Kurdistan, OCHA’s Dwyer said: “We are getting everywhere where we can within our security limitations. This is Iraq, the security limitations are not arbitrarily or unnecessarily applied; it’s a dangerous place.”
Call for corridors
In the past week there have been several calls for negotiated humanitarian corridors to allow aid workers access to people in militant-controlled areas.
But Dwyer said: “The security situation in Iraq is immensely complicated and things are changing and moving very fast. What is a safe area one day can very rapidly become not safe the next.
“This notion of a humanitarian corridor might sound simple enough, but it is actually very complicated. Not all armed groups are the same, so being able to negotiate with one or two, doesn’t mean that you are going to [get] full and free access to where you want to be.”
He stressed the risks involved with aid workers going into these areas had to be taken into account.
* The doctor's name has been changed to protect his identity