Iraq forcibly returning displaced civilians to volatile areas
Iraq's security forces are forcibly returning displaced civilians from refugee camps to volatile areas in the Anbar province, exposing them to death and violence, refugees and aid workers say.
More than two million Iraqis have been displaced by the war against the Islamic State group, with critics of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi saying the premier is more interested in winning May elections than alleviating the suffering of refugees.
Aid workers and refugees say Iraqi authorities are sending people back against their will to ensure elections take place on time - due to be held mid-May.
Civilians must be in their area of origin to vote and if they do not return it could delay the election.
Abadi is riding a wave of popularity after Iraq's armed forces defeated the Islamic State group, but faces an electoral challenge from candidates linked to Iranian-backed militia groups.
Aid workers say that military trucks arrived at refugee camps unannounced and officials read out lists of people who had one hour to pack before being driven away.
"These returns are not safe," one aid worker told Reuters.
"Even those who don't openly resist really have no other choice. They cannot really say no to a bunch of people with guns."
Between 2,400 and 5,000 civilians were forcibly returned to unsafe areas in the Anbar province between 21 November and 2 January, aid workers say.
Several families who were returned to areas in the province suffered death and injury, refugees say.
An Iraqi military spokesman said the claim that displaced civilians were forcibly returned against their will was exaggerated.
"Our primary concern is the safety of our citizens, our job is to protect people," Iraqi Joint Operations Command Spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool told Reuters.
However, "citizens have to go home" now that IS had been defeated, he said.
Some aid workers said local military commanders told them the orders came from Abadi's office. The prime minister's spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Saleh Ahmed, 37, and his family were told by security forces to return to their home town of Betaya but refused because sources at home told them the area was filled with booby-traps left by IS.
A local Iraqi commander assured them the area was safe and he returned with a tent provided by the army.
Saleh's wife was killed by an explosive device after returning to their old home and his daughter sustained full body burns. Saleh lost an eye in the explosion.
Other families told aid workers that masked men launched attacks on returning families.
For most displaced civilians it is not economically viable to leave the refugee camps, where they can set up small businesses to support themselves.
Some who had agreed to return faced bribes of up to $400 at checkpoints manned by Iranian-backed Shia groups, a sum none could afford.
A US diplomat in Baghdad said she had heard reports of forced returns, which the embassy had brought to the attention of the Iraqi government.
She said the government had stressed its commitment to safe and voluntary returns but also said that "there is a real desire to get people home as quickly as possible".
Around half of displaced Iraqis have returned home, the UN says, while around 2.6 million are still displaced.