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Iraqi Authorities Trying To Deal With A Complicated Legacy Of ISIS Fighters


In Iraq, authorities are trying to deal with one of the complicated legacies of ISIS. With many fighters dead or in prison, it's unclear what should happen to their wives and children, many of them citizens of other countries.

NPR's Jane Arraf has been looking into this issue in northern Iraq, and she joins us from the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Hi, Jane.


SHAPIRO: How many women and children are we talking about?

ARRAF: So we're talking about 1,400 of them. And I'm told that a little under half of that number is women. And the rest are children, really small children because a lot of them were born here. And they're under the age of 3. So more than half of them are from Turkey. There are a lot from Azerbaijan. And then the third-biggest group is Russian. There aren't any known Americans that we know of among this group, and very few Westerners.

SHAPIRO: And right now, what's the Iraqi government doing with them?

ARRAF: So this particular group had been in a camp in the Kurdistan region, and then they were moved to an overcrowded detention center and basically put in the same place as hardened criminals. So now the Iraqi government has moved them to Baghdad. I spoke with the ICRC, which is the International Committee of the Red Cross, and they've been able to monitor them to make sure they're treated properly. One Iraqi official told me they were being taken to Baghdad in preparation for the children being repatriated to their home countries, but that's expected to take a very long time.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, repatriation to their home countries - well, first of all, why would that take so long?

ARRAF: Well, first they have to figure out exactly who these children are. And by that I mean they have to figure out whether these women who are saying, yes, these are my children are actually their mothers because some of them are believed to have been taken when ISIS came in three years ago in Sinjar and Mosul and had either killed their parents or took them as sex slaves.

I was given access to an orphanage where there were two children who were Yazidi children. The Yazidis are that ancient ethnic minority that were particular targets of ISIS. One of them is now 5 years old. And she was recently removed from a Turkish woman who was among that group of women married to ISIS. And they had discovered that she was Yazidi. But when I asked her what her name was she told me, I forgot. And they believe that's happening with quite a few children who are missing. So they're now doing DNA testing.

SHAPIRO: DNA testing to match the children with the people who claim to be their mother, to match the children with women who have been enslaved by ISIS? I mean, what would this even accomplish?

ARRAF: So it'll be DNA testing to prove that these women who say, yes, this is my child, I did not kidnap her or him is actually the genetic mother. It will tell whether these children belong with those parents because the Iraqi officials say they're now finding out that some of these children were Yazidi children. They actually have families, and either their parents were killed or they were taken captive. Or they were Turkmen Shia or even Christians, all of whom ISIS enslaved at some point.

SHAPIRO: And then what happens to the mothers, the women who in some cases traveled to Iraq to join ISIS whose husbands are dead or in prison?

ARRAF: That is an even trickier problem because foreign countries have been willing to accept the children and place them with relatives if they can find relatives, but they're not so eager to have women back who willingly married ISIS fighters or went out to Iraq illegally to join the fighters. So the Iraqi government tends to see that having a member of the family in ISIS is a crime in itself. And they have sweeping anti-terrorism laws, and they could potentially prosecute the women under that. But at the very least, they have the authority to detain them because almost all of them are in the country illegally. They did not apply for a visa to come here.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jane Arraf speaking with us from Erbil in northern Iraq. Thanks a lot, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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