War hollows out front-line Iraqi town

In a once-bustling market town in northern Iraq, the few shops that aren't boarded up mainly cater to soldiers manning the nearby front lines in the war with the Islamic State group.

The extremists are dug in just three miles (five kilometers) away from Makhmour, and incoming mortar rounds and Katyusha rockets occasionally shatter the calm.

Nearly everyone fled when IS captured the town in August 2014 during a lightning blitz across northern and western Iraq. Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga pushed the militants out later that month, but 18 months later Makhmour still has the feel of a warzone, and many residents have stayed away.

"The market used to be very lively, very crowded," said Rebaz, the young owner of an empty cafe in the town's center. "But the Katyushas are a real problem."

The bazaar used to serve the town and surrounding communities, with farmers bringing in wheat, barley and other produce. But some vendors have relocated to Irbil, the capital of Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region, and entire neighborhoods are deserted.

"Makhmour used to be the main town of the district and all the villages depended on it," said Abdul Samet Khader, a local lawyer. "The farmers all used to come to Makhmour for shopping. On the other hand, Makhmour was also dependent on these villages and has no other sources of income."

Makhmour used to have a large Sunni Arab population that may have made up as much as half of the town. But none have returned since the town was recaptured by Kurdish forces.

"We were all living like brothers, but since there isn't a single Arab left in the town, it affected the market greatly," Khader said.

Amnesty International says Kurdish forces have deliberately displaced Arab residents from Makhmour and other areas because they view them as IS sympathizers. The Kurdish regional government denies the allegations, saying residents have stayed away because of the security situation.

Shops in Makhmour that belonged to Arab residents have been boarded up. Syrian refugees and Iraqi Kurds displaced from other parts of the country have moved into some of the abandoned homes.

These days the town is largely sustained by business from Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish fighters and allied Sunni Arab tribesmen, all of whom are based nearby.

"There was a boost for my business recently," said Aso Hassan, who runs a laundry service around the corner from the empty cafe. "All the officers bring their uniforms to be washed and ironed in my shop."

A few Sunni militiamen were standing outside, looking at military gear in the windows of the shop next door. There was nobody else on the street.