Iraq urges countries to repatriate their citizens from camp housing families of extremist Daesh group

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Iraq urged countries on Monday to repatriate their citizens from a sprawling camp in Syria housing tens of thousands linked to the extremist Daesh group, saying it has become a “source for terrorism.”

The statements were made during a conference in Baghdad discussing Al-Hol camp in northeast Syria. Iraqi officials, the UN representative in Iraq, some members of the international coalition fighting Daesh and ambassadors of several countries were present.

Al-Hol Camp — named after a town near the Iraqi border — is an open wound left by Syria’s 12-year conflict. Tens of thousands of people were taken to the facility after the extremist group’s defeat in Syria in March 2019.

The camp holds about 51,000 people, the vast majority women and children, including the wives, widows and other family members of Daesh militants, mostly Syrians and Iraqis.

There are also around 8,000 women and children from 60 other nationalities who live in a part of the camp known as the Annex. They are generally considered the most die-hard Daesh supporters among the camp residents.

There have been concerns that children at the camp were being taught extremist ideology by their mothers. Experts have warned that a future generation of Daesh fighters could emerge from Al-Hol.

“Ending the issue of Al-Hol camp has become a top national interest for Iraq,” said Ahmad Sahhaf, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, according to the country’s state news agency.

Sahhaf called on the international community to urge all countries that have citizens at the camp “to repatriate them as soon as possible in order to eventually close the camp” because it has become “a dangerous epicenter” for Daesh gatherings.

Iraq has repatriated 1,396 families from Al-Hol constituting 5,569 of its citizens over the past weeks, said Iraq’s National Security Adviser Qasim Al-Araji who spoke at the conference. Despite the repatriations, some 25,000 Iraqis remain at the camp, making up nearly half its population.

The camp’s population is down from 73,000 people, mostly because thousands of its Syrian and Iraqi inhabitants were allowed to return home. But other countries have largely balked at taking back their nationals, who traveled to join Daesh after the radical group seized large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Despite the extremist group’s defeat in Iraq in 2017 and Syria in 2019, Daesh sleeper cells still carry out deadly attacks in both countries. Over the past years, grisly crimes were committed inside Al-Hol.

Earlier this month, The US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces announced it handed over 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters to Baghdad. It also said that it repatriated 170 Iraqis who were living at the camp.

The Kurdish-led authority in northeast Syria has been urging countries to repatriate their citizens from the camp for years.

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken co-hosted a meeting in Saudi Arabia for foreign ministers from the global coalition battling Daesh during which he announced nearly $150 million in new US funding for stabilization efforts in Syria and Iraq.

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