PHOTO: Shia militia pose with captured Islamic State flag in Jurf al-Sakhar, west of Baghdad

The “sectarian cleansing” of Iraq’s communities has been a prominent theme in coverage of the Islamic State’s advance across the country, as the jihadists have killed, detained, and expelled Shia, Yazidis, and Christians from their cities, towns, and villages.

In recent weeks, however, a parallel story has emerged. As Shia militias and Iraqi forces have reclaimed territory, they have purged Sunnis, abducting the men and holding women and children captive. Those who have not been detained have found that their homes have been confiscated or razed.

Writing for Reuters, Ahmed Shaheed and Ned Parker offer examples:

Behind black gates and high walls, Iraqi national security agents watch 200 women and children.

Boys and girls play in the yard and then dart inside their trailers, located in a former U.S. military camp and one-time headquarters for Saddam Hussein’s officials in Babel province’s capital Hilla.

The women and children are unwilling guests, rounded up as they fled with their male relatives in October from Jurf al-Sakhr, a bastion of Islamic State, during a Shi’ite militia and military operation to clear the farming community.

Once they were arrested, security forces separated out the men, accusing them of being Islamic State fighters. They have not been heard from since.

Security forces say the women and children are being investigated, but have not been brought to court.

Claiming “Shi’ite groups now decide who can stay in a community and who should leave; whose houses should be destroyed and whose can stand”, the reporters also cite the situation north of Baghdad, where more than 120,000 people have fled the agricultural belt and Diyala Province in the east of the country.

New Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has pledged that the displaced will be able to live in their homes again, but the security services say it will be some time before anyone is cleared for return. Raheed and Parker note the case west of Baghdad:

“These families were joining or harboring Islamic State,” said Falah al-Rahdi, head of the Babel provincial council’s security committee. “The judicial system will decide their fate.”

Privately, officials in Babel province vow never to welcome back its Sunni residents.

A militia commander says the position is that “those who aren’t Islamic State will be allowed back”, but residents said that this translates into a campaign against all Sunnis. One man in Diyala Province says:

He heard from a Sunni neighbor that a jihadist family had moved in….But after Iraqi militias and security forces kicked Islamic State out of Saadiya in November, Shahab was stunned to learn that the militias had burned his house assuming it was a terrorist’s.

The next day, Shahab went with Shi’ite militiamen to inspect the ruins.

“I blamed the militia members at the scene for burning my house and they defended themselves, saying how could they tell a Sunni house from a Shi’ite house.”