BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq on Monday urged countries to repatriate their citizens from a sprawling camp in Syria housing tens of thousands of people linked to the extremist group Islamic State, saying it has become a “source of terrorism” .
The statements were made during a conference in Baghdad on the al-Hol camp in northeast Syria. Iraqi officials, the UN representative in Iraq, some members of the international coalition fighting ISIS and ambassadors from several countries were present.
Al-Hol camp, named after a town near the Iraqi border, is an open wound left by the 12-year-old Syrian conflict. Tens of thousands of people were taken to the facility after the extremist group was defeated in Syria in March 2019.
The camp is home to around 51,000 people, the vast majority women and children, including the wives, widows and other family members of IS militants, mostly Syrians and Iraqis.
There are also around 8,000 women and children of 60 other nationalities who live in a part of the camp known as the Annex. They are generally considered to be the strongest supporters of IS among camp residents.
There have been concerns that children in the camp are learning about extremist ideology from their mothers. Experts have warned that a future generation of IS fighters could emerge from al-Hol.
“Ending the al-Hol camp issue has become a major national interest for Iraq,” said Ahmad Sahhaf, spokesman for the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, according to the country’s official news agency.
Sahhaf called on the international community to urge all countries that have citizens in the camp “to repatriate them as soon as possible in order to eventually close the camp” as it has become “a dangerous epicentre” for IS gatherings .
Iraq has repatriated 1,396 families from al-Hol constituting 5,569 of its citizens in recent weeks, Iraqi national security adviser Qasim al-Araji said at the conference. Despite the repatriations, some 25,000 Iraqis remain in the camp, almost half of its population.
The camp’s population swelled by 73,000, mainly because thousands of its Syrian and Iraqi residents were allowed to return home. But other countries have been largely reluctant to take back their nationals, who traveled to join IS 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, IS sleeper cells continue to carry out deadly attacks in both countries. In recent years, gruesome crimes have been committed inside al-Hol.
Earlier this month, the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces announced it had handed over more than 50 Iraqi IS fighters to Baghdad. He also said he repatriated 170 Iraqis who were living in 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 the foreign ministers of the global coalition fighting ISIS during which he announced nearly $150 million in new US funds for stabilization efforts in Syria and Iraq.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed reporting from Beirut.