Shi'ite militias and Iraqi security forces, engaged in an all-or-nothing struggle with radical Sunni group Islamic State, are blasting the Sunni farmlands that encircle Baghdad with heavy weapons. Military officers call their target areas in the rural belt "killing zones." "In these parts, there are no civilians," said Lieutenant Colonel Haider Mohammed Hatem, deputy commander of the armed forces around Abu Ghraib, just west of the capital. "Everyone in these killing zones we consider Islamic State."
The death zones now scar the more than 200 km-long (124 mile) Baghdad Belt, as it is commonly known. Since January, at least 83,000 people, the vast majority of them Sunnis, have abandoned their homes in the rural area around the capital, according to the International Rescue Committee, an aid group. The figure could be higher, but is impossible to confirm because of the poor security situation. The exodus has turned the farmlands, where Shi'ites and Sunnis once lived side by side, into a no-man's land controlled by the government-backed militias and Shi'ite-dominated army.
Prime Minister Haider Abadi, a moderate Shi’ite Islamist who was sworn into office in September, has sought to curb the violence carried out under his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki. One of Abadi’s first actions was to ban indiscriminate fire against Islamic State fighters in places civilians are also present. But most ordinary Sunnis have already fled the Belt's rural areas for the capital or big towns, leaving the military and militias to continue to hammer places they consider to be jihadist bastions. One such killing zone, the Sunni district of Jurf al-Sakhar, was cleared in late October. By then, most civilians had run away after months of fighting, and mortar, rocket and aerial bombardments. The military has now barred residents of the district, which lies close to the Islamic State's stronghold of western Anbar province, from returning.