Iraqi Refugees Mosul
Children and families at a newly made refugee camp near Khazar check point in Mosul, Iraq on June 11, 2014. Barcroft Media/Landov

Thousands of Iraqis Flee to Kurdish Territory to Escape Unrest

What was last week just a dusty plot of land next to a Kurdish military checkpoint in northern Iraq is now a temporary home to at least 500 Iraqis who fled Mosul as Islamist militants took their city.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has rapidly taken swathes of Iraqi territory since the start of its ongoing assault. It also vows to take the capital of Baghdad.

“We left our home at 5 a.m.," said Miriam, who did not want to give her last name. She fled Mosul with her husband and four children, and her family's now among the hundreds at the Kurdish site. "The neighbors told us that by 8 a.m. they were in our house." Miriam's husband often worked as a driver for police and army personnel, and friends told them ISIS was making threats against him. “As we left we were stopped at an ISIS checkpoint," she said. "There was one Iraqi and one Syrian."

ISIS is now in control of Mosul as well as stretches of land from Falluja in western Iraq to the eastern edge of Aleppo in Syria. It also controls parts of the Iraq-Syria border.

As ISIS entered Mosul, the national Iraqi army put up little resistance, with many abandoning their posts, stripping off uniforms and leaving weapons and military vehicles -- some American-made -- in the hands of the militants.

“They came on white pick-up trucks. All of them in the back with their modern weapons,” said Loay Annaqi, who also fled Mosul. “As ISIS came in, the army left. They just fired a few mortars.”

Annaqi and his family are now staying in one of 100 tents in this camp. The floor and walls are made of plastic sheets and they bake under the harsh Iraqi sun. They don’t have running water or electricity. Yet, Annaqi says he never wants to go back to Mosul, fearing ISIS wants to consolidate these lands and establish an Islamic state.

“Every place they go they put up their black flag,” said Annaqi.

But most feel safe here in the Kurdish territory. In recent days the well-trained Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have successfully battled ISIS around Kirkuk, the contested oil-rich city in the north, and some here now see Kurdish military strength as a bargaining chip for the sovereignty-seeking Kurds.

As ISIS moves toward Baghdad, Iraqi politicians and religious leaders are calling on citizens to defend their cities, heightening fears that Iraq could face a fresh, all-out civil war along a Sunni-Shi'ite divide. ISIS is a radical Sunni Islamist group too extreme even for al-Qaeda, which distanced itself from the militants last year.

But ISIS has sympathy here. Discontent with the Shi'ite-lead government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is rife, particularly among the Sunni population. Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is primarily Sunni. Sitting in a refugee tent, Abu Mohamed, who didn’t want to use his real name, says al-Maliki is worse than ISIS.

“Since al-Maliki took over power he did nothing for us. No services. Just jailing people and oppressing people,” he said, echoing the complaints of many Iraqi Sunnis. “We have bad, and we have worse.”

Mohamed's eldest daughter sits in the corner. Her husband was killed by a militant group in 2012 while he was working with the Iraqi government. But despite losing his son-in-law, Mohamed still says ISIS is better than al-Maliki, revealing deep sectarian tensions.

“I left because I have a family and was worried about the violence to come,” said Abu Mohammed. “So far ISIS is not targeting civilians. They target the army, the police and government institutions.”

But there have been many reports of attacks and summary executions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are now around 300,000 Iraqis taking refuge in Kurdish territory. Catherine Robinson, a UNHCR spokesperson,says Kurdish residents have welcomed the refugees with blankets, groceries and even hot meals.

However, there are decades of tensions between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. In their semi-autonomous region, Iraqi Kurds have achieved relative prosperity and security. It’s unclear how far the Kurdish welcome will stretch if Arab refugees continue to pour into their territory.

“We are still seeing people crossing the border, leaving the Mosul area, fearing there might be more violence in the coming days,” said Robinson. “At this point we are bracing ourselves for more people.”

Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June 19.
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Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June 19.Reuters
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June 19.
A satellite image shows smoke rising from the Baiji refinery near Tikrit, Iraq, June 18.
Al-Qaeda inspired militants stand with captured Iraqi Army Humvee at a checkpoint belonging to Iraqi Army outside Baiji refinery some 155 miles north of Baghdad, June 19.
Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during a military-style training in the holy city of Najaf, June 17.
Newly-recruited Iraqi volunteers, wearing police forces uniforms, take part in a training session on June 17 in the central Shiite city of Karbala.
Personnel from the Kurdish security forces detain a man suspected of being a militant belonging to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the outskirts of Kirkuk June 16.
Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Basra, June 16.
Demonstrators chant pro-al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16.
Iraqi security forces fire artillery during clashes with Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Jurf al-Sakhar June 14.
An Iraqi security forces member with his weapon takes position as people, who fled from the violence in Mosul, arrive in their vehicles at a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Erbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region June 14.
People hold posters showing Iran's spiritual leaders Ayatollah Khomeini, while Iraqi Shiite fighters deploy with their weapons in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 southeast of Baghdad, June 14.
Iraqi Shiite men, some of them wearing military fatigues and guns given by the government, raise their weapons as they gather in the Iraqi town of Jdaideh in the Diyala province on June 14, to show their support for the call to arms by Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Iraqi men board military trucks to join the Iraqi army at the main recruiting center in Baghdad on June 14, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents.
Peshmerga military direct traffic at a Kurdish check point on June 14, in Kalak.
Traffic from Mosul queues at a Kurdish Check point on June 14,in Kalak.
Iraqi women gather at a temporary camp set up to shelter civilians fleeing violence in northern Nineveh province in Aski Kalak, 25 miles west of Erbil, on June 13.
Iraqi children carry water to their tent at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint on June 13 in Kalak.
A Shiite man cleans weapons as he gets ready to defend his Sadr City district in case of an attack by Sunni extremists, on June 13 in Baghdad.
An Iraqi soldier bodychecks men as they arrive to volunteer to join the fight against a major offensive by jihadists in northern Iraq on June 13, 2014, at recruiting center in the capital Baghdad.
Iraqi policemen dig trenches at checkpoint in the Iraqi town of Taji, at the entrance of Baghdad, on June 13, 2014, as security forces are bolstering defenses in the capital.
Men chant slogans against the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), outside of the main army recruiting center to volunteer for military service in Baghdad, June 12, 2014.
An Iraq army vehicle is seen burned by militants in Mosul, on June 12, 2014.
Refugees fleeing from Mosul head to the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region in Erbil, north of Baghdad, June 12, 2014.
Families fleeing the violence in the Iraqi city of Mosul arrive at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Erbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region June 12, 2014.
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014.
Civilian children stand next to a burnt vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the northern Iraq city of Mosul
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June
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