TIME Iraq

Liberated Iraqi Town Vows to Carry On Struggle Against ISIS

Mourners carry the coffins of Iraqi Shi'ite volunteers, who were killed during clashes with militants of the Islamic State in Amerli. during a funeral in Khalis
Mourners carry the coffins of Iraqi Shi‘ite volunteers who were killed during clashes with militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria in Amerli, during a funeral in Khalis, Iraq, on Aug. 31, 2014 Reuters

Residents of Amerli refuse to join the stream of Iraqi refugees fleeing the north of the country, after Iraqi forces, Shii‘te militia and Kurdish peshmerga break siege by Sunni militants

Iraqi forces and Shi‘ite militiamen entering the formerly beleaguered town of Amerli were greeted with joy and relief by its mostly Shi‘ite Turkmen residents Sunday, after breaking an 80-day siege by Sunni militants with the help of U.S. air strikes overnight.

“First came the Shi‘ite fighters and then the Iraqi army,” says Qasim Jawad Hussein, a 45-year-old schoolteacher and father of five. He also says local residents shot in the air to celebrate as the city was liberated. When Hussein spoke with TIME one week ago, his small community was surrounded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militants, and he could see their black flags flying just a few miles away. Now, he says, “their flags are gone.”

For weeks, residents and Turkmen leaders have been asking for American assistance against ISIS forces around Amerli, hoping for the kind of aerial support that Yedizis trapped on Mount Sinjar received earlier this month. The siege was broken Sunday after days of helicopter evacuations and humanitarian air drops by the Iraqi army.

Hussein was one of many Amerli residents who fought back against the militants when they first approached the village in June. But this weekend, it took the cooperation of three armed forces — the Iraqi national army, the Kurdish peshmerga and Shi‘ite militias — to break this siege, aided by U.S. air strikes.

The threat is not over, however. ISIS still controls the area to the west of Amerli and Kurdish peshmerga forces continue to clash with the militants. “The fighting is still ongoing,” says Major General Marwan Mohamed Amin, who controls a peshmerga unit fighting ISIS in Suleiman Beg to the north of Amerli and Khasa Darli to the west. He says the fighting there remains heavy and they will need more U.S. air strikes to defeat those positions.

“We also need more ammunition,” says Amin, adding that his unit had yet to receive any new American weapons. While today’s operations are being touted as a success, ISIS still controls swaths of Iraqi territory. “We are still fighting with the old weapons we took from Saddam Hussein’s army.”

Villagers say what they need most is supplies. The U.S. dropped around 7,000 ready-to-eat meals and 10,500 gallons of clean drinking water last night, as well as conducting air strikes. Australia, France and the U.K. also dropped humanitarian aid, but this village has been under siege for more than two months and supplies of everything are low.

“People are not going out from Amerli, we just need food, water and medical supplies,” says Mahdi Taqi, a local Turkmen official in Amerli. The village is out of fuel and while yesterday’s humanitarian drops feed hungry mouths, fuel is needed to run the generators, required to produce much-needed electricity.

Despite the shortages, and the fact that local forces have managed to open a corridor to Tuz Khormato, a nearby Turkmen village, Hussein and other residents say they are not leaving to follow the over 1 million Iraqis who have fled their homes since ISIS began its rampage across northern Iraq in June. “No, I will stay in my city. Why should I leave?” Hussein asks.

“We suffered and we resisted and we managed to get the victory,” Taqi adds. “Our moral is high. We just need supplies.”

TIME Iraq

The Rise of ISIS Sows Mistrust Between Kurds and Sunni Arabs

A Kurdish peshmerga soldier looks out over the town of Makhmour from defensive positions, Aug. 11, 2014.
A Kurdish peshmerga soldier looks out over the town of Makhmour from defensive positions, Aug. 11, 2014. Sebastian Meyer—Corbis

While some Sunni Arabs have fought alongside the militants in Iraqi Kurdistan, others are being displaced by Kurds eager to take control of disputed regions

In his home in a village south of Erbil, Soran Sabir shows a video he took of what he says are two dead Islamist fighters.

“That is Saleh,” he says, pointing to the body of a young Arab man lying on the ground surrounded by Kurdish fighters. In this mixed Kurdish-Arab area, relations between the two groups had been relatively good in recent years. Sabir says Saleh was a good costumer, frequently visiting his motorcycle repair shop, and he considered him a friend. In June, when the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took Mosul, Saleh disappeared, said Sabir. The next time he saw him was when Kurdish fighters were battling ISIS to take back Makhmour. They brought the bodies of two militants back. One was Saleh.

“I was very happy to see him dead,” said Soran. What sense does it make, he continued, for someone like Saleh to support “some stranger from Afghanistan who came here to fight” — a reference to the large number of foreign jihadis fighting with ISIS in Iraq — and attack his own neighbors?

The fight against ISIS in villages like Makhmour where Kurdish and Sunni Arabs live side by side has raised tensions between the two groups. Kurds here suspect the Arab residents of co-operating with the militants, who have vowed to create an Islamic caliphate in the broad stretch of land they now occupy over Iraq and Syria.

Those suspicions are not unwarranted, said Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter. “As the Kurds have become more powerful, the tribes have had to decide if they are going to work with the Kurds or oppose them…now that they’ve got the opportunity to stand up to the Kurds, many of them are doing it.”

But the Kurds are standing up right back. After the Kurdish peshmerga retook the area after ISIS left, Arab residents were stopped from returning to their homes. Kurdish officials say the Arabs aren’t to be trusted, and that the mixed villages actually belong to Erbil. “They occupied our lands for 50 years, and then on such a bad day, they stab us in the back,” said Tariq Sarmami, a senior media advisor of the Kurdistan Parliament in Erbil. “That’s what creates this reaction.”

Arabs and Kurds have always shared the villages of Makhmour, but under Saddam Hussein more Arabs were resettled to these areas as part of his Arabization policies, in an attempt to alter the balance of demographics in mixed areas so that Baghdad could stake claim to the contested regions. When Saddam was ousted in 2003, a wave of Kurds returned to the villages and the current demographics are now contested.

Makhmour is one of the disputed areas outlined in section 140 of Iraq’s constitution, which mandates a referendum on whether the area should join the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, or remain under the control of Baghdad. That vote hasn’t yet been held. In the meanwhile, the residents have been living under two separate administrations; the national government in Baghdad, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Kurdish Erbil, which has been steadily making an administrative creep on the territory it sees as belonging to them.

“The Kurdification, or re-Kurdification has actually been an open policy of the KRG since 2003 onwards,” said Stansfield. The Kurds paid compensation to some Arab families to leave contested areas, but many chose to stay, particularly those from tribes that resided here long before Saddam’s Arabization policies. “There are definitely some Arabs that were brought there by the government of Iraq, but there are others that have their roots there,” said Stansfield.

Now, ISIS’s march through the region has allowed Kurdification to intensify. In a junction between Makhmour and Erbil, Garib Nihayet Ojel sits on the side of the road with his family, his daughter-in-law breastfeeding an infant in the sweltering heat. Ojel, an Arab from Tel-Abta, a village between Makhmour and Mosul, is trying to reach Makhmour, with the promise of work with a Kurdish farmer there.

“We can’t go back home,” said Ojel, who said he is looking for a safe place to take his family. “We escaped ISIS.”

The Kurds don’t see Ojel and his family as refugees of a war, but as a potential threat. “Tell them, Arab people are not allowed to enter these provinces,” said an officer of the Asayish, the Kurdish intelligence, stopping in the junction flanked with peshmerga soldiers. “It’s prohibited for them.”

“We are not fighters, we are not combatants, we are just families. We just want to find a safe place,” said Ojel’s wife. The officer accuses them of spying for ISIS. While officials say there are procedures in place to determine genuine threats, there seems to be little due process here.

The fear among Arabs now is that others like Ojel will never be allowed back to their villages, creating de-facto Kurdish control over the productive farm lands south of Erbil. “We should expect that the situation in the disputed territories will remain disputed even if the Kurds say that it’s Kurdish,” said Stansfield. “This is going to be a very significant flash point for some years to come.”

And for the Kurds, it’s not just these mixed villages that pose a threat to their demographics. Of the flood of Iraqi refugees who have come to Kurdish cities such as Erbil since fighting between ISIS and Iraqi national and Kurdish forces worsened, Christians have been warmly welcomed. Sunni Arabs, however, are often restricted to camps on the outskirts, eyed with suspicion by local Kurds.

“We regret taking them,” said Sarmami, sitting in his office in the Kurdish Parliament. “We regret that we accepted all these Arabs here. We accept them without having any plans.”

TIME Iraq

ISIS Lays Siege to Iraqi Turkmen Village

IRAQ-UNREST-AMERLI
An Iraqi Turkmen Shi‘ite fighter holds a position on Aug. 4, 2014 in Amirli, Iraq Ali Al-Bayati—AFP/Getty Images

The Turkmen of Amirli, Iraq, have been fending off Islamist fighters for months

In June, when fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) attacked the Iraqi village of Amirli, 45-year-old teacher Qasim Jawad Hussein was one of hundreds of villagers who rushed to pick up their weapons to fight alongside police and other Shi’ite Turkmen villagers as they clashed with the Sunni extremists.

“We tried to leave the village and we saw [ISIS'] Hummers and their black flags. We were taken by surprise,” said Hussein on a crackly cell phone from Amirli, which remains under siege. “Then I heard fire from the next village over. They were fighting with ISIS. So we went back to get our guns.”

But their collection of aging Soviet rifles has been no match for ISIS’ looted arsenal of American weapons and armored vehicles. Amirli has been under siege for more than two months, and supplies are dwindling.

“We are asking Muslims, Christians, anyone — what we really need is milk for the children,” said Hussein.

Hussein said the militants are just few kilometers from the village, and the residents have organized watches of 200 men each working in shifts, fearing that the militants will storm Amirli.

“The situation of the people in Amirli is desperate and demands immediate action to prevent the possible massacre of its citizens,” the U.N. Secretary-General’s special representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said in a statement Saturday.

The Turkmen, who have linguistic and cultural ties to Turkey, have lived in northern Iraq for centuries and are both Shi‘ite and Sunni Muslims. They stake claim to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and populate villages throughout the Kirkuk governorate and further south. In June, many of those villages came under attack by ISIS. Residents told troubling stories of their own Arab neighbors turning on them.

“For two months, ISIS has targeted the Turkmen areas, starting with Tal Afar, Mosul, Tuz Khormato and now Amirli. So I’m worried for the future of the Turkmen people,” said Ali Mehdi, a spokesperson for the Iraqi Turkmen Front, a political organization that seeks to represent the interests of the Turkmen minority in Iraq.

The fear now is that Turkmen residents of Amirli will suffer the same fate as the Yezidis of Sinjar, a minority religious group in Iraq who recently fled to a mountaintop in fear of ISIS fighters, creating a potential humanitarian catastrophe before international efforts were launched to come to their aid. As Shi‘ite Muslims, Amirli’s Turkmen are seen as apostates by ISIS militants, who practice a strict — some say distorted — version of Sunni Islam. Like all those who don’t practice ISIS’ version of the faith, the Shi‘ite Turkmen are a target, and as a small and unique minority, they are particularly vulnerable. Some Iraqi Shi‘ite militias have said they will mobilize to help Amirli, but if the militias do try to rescue the residents of Amirli, they will likely be no match for ISIS. On top of that, most of the Shi‘ite militias are Arab, not Turkmen, and are organized to protect their own neighborhoods, leaving the Turkmen largely on their own.

“Shi‘ite militias are organized as local defense forces. Not like ISIS, which is one coherent military organization. There’s one guy at the top” of ISIS, says Christopher Harmer, a senior analyst with the Washington, D.C.–based Institute for the Study of War, who served several tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq.

“Is it possible that the Shi’ite militia could go up there and try a rescue operation, yeah, sure, but the fact is that if the Shi‘ite militia went head-to-head with ISIS, they would get crushed. And I think they know that,” said Harmer.

Both Mehdi and Hussein are calling on the U.S. to intervene. However, as of yet, there have been no air strikes like those carried out by American warplanes in Sinjar. Those strikes allowed local Kurdish forces to open a corridor, allowing many Yezidis to escape.

“Why didn’t the U.S. do anything for this village? Why does the U.S. Air Force go to [the] Mosul Dam, Erbil, but they don’t come here?,” asked Mehdi. “That makes us think the U.S. doesn’t care about the Turkmen.”

But the Americans also have a long-standing relationship with the Kurdish forces, which operated around Sinjar, and it would be difficult for U.S. Special Forces to coordinate with Shi‘ite militias, some of which were sometimes lined up against American forces during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. On top of that, the plight of the Shi‘ite Turkmen may simply not have the appeal of the Yezidis, whose little-known faith and desperate isolation on a besieged mountaintop sparked broad sympathy and interest. Harmer says that could change with the U.N.’s recent statements, but it would be a tough decision for Washington to make.

“America took quite a while to decide to intervene [with ISIS]. And once we decided to intervene, we decided to intervene in Sinjar. I think there was sort of this feeling that these are such a unique religious minority,” said Harmer. The U.S. has now hit ISIS across northern Iraq, focusing on the area around the Mosul Dam. “With the Shi‘ites, it just gets lost in the Sunni-Shi‘ite conflict. There’s nothing unique about ISIS targeting a Shi‘ite village.”

TIME Iraq

Can Iraq’s New Prime Minister Keep the Sunnis on Side?

Iraq's new prime minister Haidar Al-Abadi in Bagdad, Aug. 16, 2014.
Iraq's new prime minister Haidar Al-Abadi in Bagdad, Aug. 16, 2014. Michael Kappeler—EPA

Haider Al-Abadi must regain the trust of Sunni politicians and tribal leaders if he's going to unite Iraq against the ISIS threat

Even this Iraqi refugee camp is divided by sect. Displaced Kurds shelter in a large warehouse here in Bahirka, the members of the Shia Shabak minority have their UN tents in a line outside and the Sunni Arabs are gathered by the back fence. There is even a corner for the seven Palestinian families that fled Mosul.

Ibrahim, who gave only his first name, is living in the back row of Sunni tents with his wife and four children.

“Of course I blame the Iraqi government for this,” said Ibrahim, who worked as a day laborer and rented a small apartment for his family in Mosul before they fled June 10. “During Prime Minister Maliki’s time, Mosul was like a fortress. There were check-points everywhere.”

This heavy security in Sunni areas like Mosul created resentment against the central government, as many felt the regions had been occupied by security forces loyal to then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who announced he would step down from the premiership on Aug. 15.

Maliki fostered a sharp sectarian split in Iraq, parceling out resources and ministerial roles to his Shiite allies and alienating the Sunnis who populate much of the northern territory taken by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) earlier this summer. Having been estranged by Maliki’s government, the well-armed Sunni tribes of the Nineveh Province put up little resistance to the militants, allowing the group to expand quickly in the region. The militants now control one-third of Iraq and the organization is easily recruiting from the disenfranchised Sunni population. ISIS is believed to have enlisted thousands of new fighters in recent months.

“People don’t like ISIS, but they just hated al-Maliki. And ISIS was the only alternative,” said Ibrahim.

Now, there is a new alternative — Iraq’s new prime minister Haider al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker also from al-Maliki’s Dawa Party. He has promised a more inclusive national government, and compromise with the Kurds. But to beat back the spread of ISIS, he’ll need to win over Sunnis bruised by years of Maliki’s leadership—not just the political leadership, but also the Sunni tribal chiefs.

“We are optimistic about participating in the new government,” says Hamed al-Mutlaq, a member of the Iraqi parliament and an influential Sunni politician. “But first we want a real change, not just a change of faces in the government.”

Real change, says al-Mutlaq, would mean ending the division of powers along sectarian lines, and a rebuilding of Iraq’s armed forces, which many say al-Maliki attempted to mould into his own personal militia. If these changes are met, he says, Sunnis might unite against ISIS. “We want safety and security in Iraq and want to get rid of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the all the militias in Iraq.”

But while politicians are showing optimism, or at very least willingness, so far the Sunni tribes of the Nineveh Province have shown no signs of pivoting toward the central government from the leadership offered by ISIS — and some analysts are losing hope that they might. “The situation has reached such a level that I’m not sure it’s reversible. I’m not sure we can solve it,” says Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst with International Crisis Group.

Bringing tribal leaders back into the fold would require al-Abadi to decentralize authority from Baghdad to empower Sunni provincial leaders, said Fantappie. “But again, to tell you the truth, from the contacts I have with the Sunni tribes even this project is unlikely to succeed. Unfortunately, I think we reached the point where the ISIS project has become very attractive for many Sunnis,” says Fantappie.

Some, but not all. Maysar, a Sunni from Mosul living in the refugee camp in Bahirka, voiced worries that everyone who remained in the city will be accused of siding with ISIS when they are simply attempting to live under the new regime. The 35-year-old, who would only give his first name, says he was one of the few police who tried to fight back against the militants when they entered the city three months ago, and now feels like an outcast.

“When Haidar Al-Abadi chooses his government he must be very careful. He must deal very carefully with people of Mosul,” he says. Many in these areas are sitting quietly because they fear ISIS as long as the group remain in control, he says. “Yes, some people there are with ISIS. But he can’t just consider everyone who remains in Mosul to be a terrorist.”

TIME Iraq

Iraq Fighting Is Driving Weapons Prices Through the Roof

An Iraqi Kurd inspects a machine gun at an arms market in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on Aug. 17, 2014.
An Iraqi Kurd inspects a machine gun at an arms market in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on Aug. 17, 2014. Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

A fight against ISIS militants leads to skyrocketing prices

Next to a criminal prison in Erbil, Kurdish traders hawk Kalashnikovs, pistols and even American made M16s.

“This is $1,500,” says Saleh Mahmoud, stroking the wooden shaft of a Bulgarian-made Kalashnikov. “Last week this gun was $2,000. The day the terrorists came near Erbil everyone was buying weapons.”

Mahmoud has dealt in arms since 1991, when the Kurds were battling Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army. In more than two decades in the arms trade, he says he’s never seen prices skyrocket like they did 10 days ago as Islamist militants showed up on the Kurds’ doorstep. And while Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga, retook the critical Mosul Dam from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Monday, the fighting against the extremists is far from over. The peshmerga were only able to retake the dam with assistance from the Iraqi national army and heavy American air cover. The fact that it took three armed forces to recapture just one structure from ISIS shows the strength of the militants—and doesn’t bode well for Iraqi and Kurdish forces. The semi-autonomous Kurds are considered to have the most capable army in Iraq, but they have mostly light artillery, and no air force.

Outside the headquarters of Asayesh, the peshmerga’s intelligence arm, three large Kurdish men stand on guard with Russian made weapons—a couple of aging Kalashnikovs and a newer Izhmash. A lot of the weapons carried by peshmerga forces were looted from Saddam’s army bases in 1990s, and they weren’t top shelf even then.

President Barack Obama said Monday that the United States had “urgently provided additional arms and assistance to Iraqi forces, including Kurdish and Iraqi security forces who are fighting on the front lines.” But Colonel Hersh Muhsin, who heads the Asayesh munitions unit in Erbil, says he hasn’t seen any new guns.

“Come with me,” he says, opening a closest with a few RPGs and rifles leaning against the wall and mounted PKC machine gun sitting on the floor. “These RPGs are useless against America-made armored vehicles. On the front lines, ISIS all have American made weapons, and we do not.”

But while they may be poorly armed, Muhsin says the peshmerga are strong because they are fighting to protect their land. “Less important is the gun, and more important is the strength of the ideology of the hand that holds it,” he says.

The peshmerga are known for being passionate fighters, raised on guns and nationalism in the mountains of Kurdistan, but Muhsin may be underestimating the conviction of the ISIS fighters who pledge their allegiance to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and fight for the dream of an Islamic caliphate.

The lack of budget and supplies has pushed Kurdish fighters to buy their own guns. That, combined with the fear of the general population, pushed up weapons prices early in the month.

“But now people are looking to the media which says everyday that France, Germany and America will send weapons,” Muhsin says.

Back at the market, the buyers and sellers say that prices have finally dipped, a sign people here have faith the weapons are coming from aboard. The market is filled with peshmerga fighters buying their own guns, but everyone here calls for the international community to give more.

“I bought this to fight ISIS,” says Niro Talat, a 34-year-old driver who managed to find $3,000 to buy a brand-new M-16. He twists the sleek black weapon in his hands. “This is better than a Kalashnikov. It’s more accurate. It’s a good weapon.”

No one here seems to know how a new M-16, stamped, “Property of the U.S. GOVT,” ended-up in this market, but it raises questions about the fate of foreign arms provided to the Kurds to fight ISIS.

The position of this gun market, a few hundred meters from a criminal prison, may be an indication of the Kurdish forethought when comes to weapons. “Do you want to take a picture of an RPG,” asks a man leaning into the car wearing military fatigues and the very-popular-here faux ‘US Army’ shirt. “Come, it’s in my house.”

The peshmerga were born of Kurdish resistance and trained as guerilla fighters to protect their mountainous territory and fight for independence. The Kurdish leaders are preaching about ISIS’s brutality and the militants’ superior American arms, demanding equally good weapons to fight the extremists.

But where will those guns be pointed when—or if—ISIS is defeated? The goal of theses Kurdish fighters has always been an independent Kurdistan.

TIME Iraq

Fears Rise in Northern Iraq Despite U.S. Support

Kurdish "peshmerga" troops take part in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants, on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh
Kurdish Peshmerga troops take part in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants, on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh, Aug. 6, 2014. Reuters

Worries that help from Obama in Iraq is too little, too late

Even as President Barack Obama authorizes U.S. airstrikes against militants in Iraq, fears are rising that the fighters are advancing on Kurdish territory in the north of the country.

The Kurdish fighters—known as Peshmerga—had kept the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) out of their territory for months, but the more than 1,000-km border they share with the militants is now under attack. “Now, the Kurds have more than one front open,” said Hoshang Waziri, an Iraqi analyst based in Erbil.

So despite Obama’s promise that “America is coming to help,” some fear it may be too little, too late.

The Kurdish government in Erbil welcomed Obama’s authorization of airstrikes—strikes that started Friday—but Kurds have been calling for U.S. intervention for months. From senior officials to shopkeepers in Erbil, American intervention has been seen as key for Kurds ever since the militants began claiming swaths of northern Iraq.

“Where was America?” asked Majid, a 28-year resident of Qaraqosh who fled his home this week with thousands of other Christians. He wouldn’t give his last name for fear of being targeted by the Islamists. He said as Peshmerga forces withdrew, the militants entered and took control of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city and home to some of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Some Christians have been told to convert to Islam or leave.

“They took the cross off our church and replaced it with a black flag of the Islamic State,” said Majid, who is seeking refuge in Erbil. Thousands of Christians have fled into the Kurdish territory and are sleeping on the floors of churches and community centers.

They are comparatively lucky. As many as 50,000 members of the Yazidi minority sect are trapped in the Sinjar mountains, surrounded as they were trying to escape the militants. The U.S. air-dropped humanitarian supplies overnight to the stranded Yazidis, but rescuing them will be difficult.

For Christians like Majid, it seems unlikely they will return home soon.

“I can’t live under the [ISIS]. Because every minute they do something different,” he said.

It may have been the element of surprise that allowed ISIS to gain so much ground, said Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. While Kurdish officials say they warned the government in Baghdad about ISIS’ offensive on Mosul and northern Iraq in June, many were surprised how quickly and easily the militants claimed Iraqi territory. They were even more surprised that the extremist Sunni militants were able to push the Peshmerga out of areas in the last week.

The Kurds may have become too comfortable as militants said their sights were set south, on the capital Baghdad, with no mention of Erbil. So when they attacked, the Kurds were caught off guard.

“The most interesting and frightening thing that happened is the fact that [ISIS] really has been able to beat-up on the Peshmegra,” Pollack said. “That’s not something anyone anticipated.”

Throughout June and much of July, the Kurdish region felt like an oasis of security protected by the Kurdish fighters. While there was little actual combat between the Islamists and the Peshmerga, the Kurdish people—and the world— praised the might of the Kurdish armed forces. But that might went untested.

“This is not the same Peshmerga of the 1960s and 70s,” Pollack said. The Peshmerga were known throughout the region as a strong fighting force as they resisted Turkish and Iraqi dominance. “Kurdistan has changed dramatically. They’re not these tough mountain boys anymore who were brought-up learning how to shoot. Now they are city kids and they don’t have the same exposure and they don’t have the same commitment.”

While the Peshmerga have experienced generals, they haven’t fought a war in almost two decades. Pollack said they may need more assistance than just the “limited strikes” suggested by Obama to defend their territory against ISIS.

Waziri said it’s not just military support the Kurds and Iraq need now from Washington. “The U.S. left Iraq but it still needs to use its leverage,” he said.

For months now, Sunnis and Kurds and an increasing number of Shi’ites have been calling for Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step aside and allow the formation of a new, more inclusive government to pull Sunnis away from allegiance with ISIS and mount a more united fight against the militants.

Instead, the factions remain divided and the Sunni tribes, who can play a key role, are discontent with al-Maliki’s leadership.

“Washington needs to put real pressure on Baghdad to get its s–t together,” Waziri said.

TIME foreign affairs

Death Count Rises As Parties Scramble for Israel-Gaza Ceasefire

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with Hamas leader to promote a deal proposed by Egypt

JERUSALEM — The death toll continues to rise as a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel becomes more and more elusive.

At least 100 Palestinians have been killed since the start of Israel ground offensive, according to Palestinian officials in Gaza.

Among the dead is a family of eight, killed by Israeli tank fire in the northern Gaza Strip last night, adding yet another tragedy to the now 11-day-old Israeli Operation Defensive Edge, which has killed more than 340 Palestinians. Most of the dead are civilians, including at least 73 children. According to the UN, more than 50,000 people in Gaza have been displaced from their homes, but there are no refugees as Gazans are unable to leave the tiny coastal territory.

“My children ask me questions about why this is happening and I don’t have any answers,” says Mahfouz Kabariti, who lives near the Gaza seafront with his wife and six children. The buzz of Israeli drones, which are now a constant backdrop to the frequent sound of explosions, can be heard through the phone. “I can see the Israeli navy ships from my window.”

As Israel’s navy fired from the sea and the air force struck Gaza from above, Israeli troops engaged with Hamas fighters on the border Saturday after eight militants tried to enter Israel from the territory through an underground tunnel.

“This illustrates that our concerns are real,” said Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Lerner says the IDF has already destroyed 5,000 of the 10,000 rockets it believes Hamas has in its arsenal. Israel now has thousands of troops inside Gaza and says it will widen its offensive, which aims to crush Hamas’ infrastructure.

“We have our hands full to complete these missions,” Lerner said.

At least two Israelis were killed Saturday after militants breached the territory’s northern border, bringing the Israeli death toll to five. The Israeli army says they have identified at least 20 tunnels on the Gaza-Israel border, and that militants planned to sneak into Israel with the aim of committing attacks.

While the Israeli army battled Hamas fighters, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flew to Qatar and will meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to promote a ceasefire proposed by Egypt. After years of division, a unity deal was struck in April between Abbas’ Fatah party–which rules in the West Bank–and Hamas, but this military escalation has put a new wedge between the factions.

So far all these diplomatic efforts have been in vain. Israel claims it launched its ground offensive only after Hamas rejected several ceasefire offers. Israel’s cabinet voted to approve a ceasefire deal earlier this week, but it was turned down by Hamas.

“We rejected the Egyptian initiative because it wasn’t fair, giving the Israelis whatever they want,” said Ehab Hussein, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. “Nobody can accept that when you are getting hit and killed, that at the same time you should stop defending yourself without getting anything.”

Hamas is looking for more than just an end to hostilities. The leadership wants to gain new conditions from any deal to end the fighting.

“It’s not strange things we are asking for. We are saying, give us our freedom. Lift the siege. Open the borders. Implement the past agreement of 2012 and the agreement of the prisoner exchange,” said Ehab al-Hussein, in reference to prisoners who were re-arrested this month after being released in the swap for Gilad Shalit in 2011.

Egypt has been trying to broker a deal between Israel and Hamas in Cairo, but some speculate that Egypt is not a neutral mediator. Egypt’s new president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has an ongoing campaign in his country to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent organization, and many argue his sympathies lie with Israel. However, Hussein says they have not shut down that channel.

UN secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is expected in Israel today in attempt to push for a ceasefire.

“Hopefully we will reach something,” said Hussein, “because we didn’t want this war. The Israelis started it.”

TIME Iraq

In the Midst of Iraq’s Chaos, the Kurds Inch Towards Independence

Kurdish protesters
Iraqi Kurdish protesters display the flag of the autonomous Kurdistan region on July 3, 2014. Safin Hamed—/AFP/Getty Images

Militants from ISIS are threatening Iraq's capital of Baghdad, but in autonomous Kurdistan, things have never been better

As the Iraqi army continues to battle Sunni militants for control of its territory―with forces from the Islamic State not far outside the capital of Baghdad―Kurdish President Masoud Barzani is sitting comfortably in quiet Erbil. After over a century of demands for independence, Kurds may be closer than to securing their statehood. “In Kurdistan we have a government that is functioning, a parliament that is meeting and professional, dedicated Peshmerga forces,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Department of Foreign Relations. “In Iraq you have none of that.”

With the autonomy granted to the KRG under the Iraqi constitution, Kurds have managed an entity that looks more like a functional state than many long-established nations in the region. They secure their own borders and are sidestepping Baghdad to exporting their own oil. Their independent police force even monitors speeders with traffic cameras.

In central Erbil, the Kurdish de-facto capital, Hoshang Assad wheels his car through the streets. The 26-year-old taxi driver explains how Kurds have all the trappings of a modern nation-state. “We have our own language, our own culture and our own land,” he says. “We have a good economy now, we have oil, we have everything we need to make our state.”

But while Kurds believe they are a nation now in everything but name, those outside its borders are less sanguine about the possibility of true independence. Assad’s car seats are covered with massive American flags and like many Kurds he recite praise for the US, the Kurds oldest, and at times only, ally. Washington, though, hasn’t exactly been a cheerleader of Kurdish independence. “In 2003 the U.S. wanted the Kurds to give up federalism and give up their Peshmerga forces. The Kurds refused,” said Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter in Britain. “Imagine what Erbil would look like today if they had given up the Peshmerga…ISIS would be flying its black flag in Erbil.”

In the past three weeks, the Peshmerga have fortified the Kurdish frontiers and moved into contested areas like oil-rich Kirkuk, even as Iraq’s national army fled invading fighters from ISIS. And as the black flags of ISIS stake claim to neighboring towns, the sun-crested Kurdish flag still flies above the secured streets of Kurdistan. Since 1945, when the Kurds briefly had an independent state, this flag has represented Kurdish aspirations for statehood. But after years of fighting alongside U.S. troops, implementing U.S.-favored free market economics and now allowing hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees to take shelter in their territory, Kurds may deserve a sportsmanship trophy―but it may not earn a seat at the United Nations. “The U.S. has invested so much time and treasure into the idea of Iraq as we know it,” said Stansfield. “The collapse of Iraq will be seen as a waste of American life and money.”

But Bakir, who was with the Kurdish delegation in Washington this week, believes that the latest crises may cause the U.S. to change its position. “The U.S. has seen the difference between Erbil and Baghdad,” said Bakir. He says the Kurds are now on a two-track approach, still willing to compromise with the Iraqi government in Baghdad―but also ready to make their moves toward independence. “Baghdad always promises Kurds the world when Baghdad is weak,” says Stansfield. “And then as soon as Baghdad is strong enough to re-impose its authority over the Kurds then it comes back with its engines.”

The idea of splitting up the country, whose borders were drawn by colonial authorities Britain and France a century ago and defined by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, is uncomfortable for many―particularly neighboring states like Turkey with large Kurdish minorities of their own, pushed up against the aspirational state’s borders.

“Kurdish national aspirations will not stop in Zakho,” says Hosham Dawod, an Erbil-based researcher for the French National Center for Scientific Research, referring to the Kurdish town that sits on the Turkish border. “They will cross the border. Right now this Sykes-Picot map is looking very weak.”

And while Iraqi Kurdish leaders caution that their national aspirations are confined to land within Iraq’s current borders, there is worry among regional and international powers that Kurdish independence could have a domino effect. Iran and Syria both have large Kurdish populations. Amid the chaos in Syria, Kurds have asserted a degree of control in their villages, and Iran may fear all this will inspire its own Kurdish minority. Stansfield says Iran also benefits from having a weak Shia-led state next door.

But with Iraq in turmoil it is possible that Turkey will get onboard, preferring a pragmatic Kurdish state to a caliphate on its southern border. Already, the Turks have helped the Kurds export oil through their territory and signed a 50-year gas deal with the KRG―acts frowned upon by Baghdad. Currently, the Kurds are exporting around 100,000 barrels per day, but that’s not enough to support a new state of over 6 million people. Israel has become a natural market for this oil, but it’s not clear who else will buy all those barrels, as many countries fear buying from the Kurds would cause Baghdad to cut off its much larger exports.

And while the Kurds have created relative autonomy and prosperity in their enclave, their finances are less secure. Baghdad has withheld millions of dollars in transfer payments to Erbil since January over oil the sales and Kurdish civil servants are still waiting for paychecks the KRG doesn’t have the money to write. Nonetheless, jumping off a sinking Iraq may offer a better path to prosperity than staying within its borders. “The political landscape has changed and the balance of power has changed,” said Bakir. “There is a new reality and that requires a new policy and a new approach.”

TIME Iraq

The Iraqi Government Seems Helpless to Stop ISIS’s New Caliphate

The Sunni militant group says it has created its own Islamic empire. Their hold is less than secure, but Iraq's government seems helpless

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With the upload of an audio recording, radical Sunni militants on June 29 declared a new Islamic caliphate, a religious superstate, stretching from eastern Iraq to the Syrian city of Aleppo. The group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is now simply the Islamic State, dropping the names of the two countries whose sovereignty it doesn’t recognize.

After weeks of laying claim to Iraqi territory, the group’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said on Sunday that they had everything necessary to proclaim their state. The Caliph — or leader — is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born ISIS leader who appears to be giving al-Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a run for his money. “Listen to your leader and obey him,” said al-Adnani in the online statement. “Support your state, which grows continuously.”

But despite massive Sunni discontent with the Shi‘ite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a caliphate run by a Caliph whose location is unknown and whose representatives regularly order beheadings may still be too much for many Iraqis. “They put up the new rules at all the mosques,” said one resident of Mosul, an Iraqi city that has fallen to ISIS. “Now it’s no smoking, no argileh pipes, and they sent the women home from government jobs.”

Even more troubling than the strict Shari‘a law ISIS is known to enforce with public lashings and executions is the militant group’s assertion of sovereignty over the territory it controls. There are many Islamists and well-armed Sunnis within ISIS’s self-declared borders who won’t be keen to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi and his black flag.

Until now, Sunni tribes and the old guard of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party have been playing along with ISIS against a common enemy: Baghdad and al-Maliki’s Shi‘ite-led government. But “there are a lot of tribes that don’t want to be part of a caliphate,” said Kenneth Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. And it may be their resistance, rather the Iraqi army, that will prove the true obstacle for ISIS. “This is exactly the thing back in 2006 when they were al-Qaeda in Iraq that got them in to trouble and helped push the Sunni tribes back into the arms of the Americans.”

But as ISIS defends its new territory, its assertion of dominance may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as an increasing number of fighters join the group seen as winning on the ground. “The events of the last three weeks have really boosted ISIS’s stock among the global jihadist movement,” said Pollack. “These guys took Mosul. When was the last time al-Qaeda did anything that impressive? So if you’re some young would-be jihadi I think there is a good likelihood you’re going to choose ISIS as opposed to the old al-Qaeda.”

ISIS fighters continue to battle Iraqi government troops, particularly for the strategic northern city of Tikrit. Despite outnumbering the jihadists, the Iraqi national army has retaken little ground, and is desperately reaching out to the international community for military support. Russia was quick to deliver a small fleet of warplanes over the weekend, and U.S. advisers are already in country to support the Iraqi military.

But al-Maliki’s choice of military force rather than political negotiation is failing, and calls for him to step down here are being heard in Tehran, and even in Iraq among his Shi‘ite support base. On July 1 Iraq’s parliament will reconvene and there will be a lot of pressure on al-Maliki to make the concessions suggested by U.S Secretary of State John Kerry and British First Secretary of State William Hague when they visited Iraq recently. Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities say the current government has a sectarian agenda and the Kurds are more interested in autonomy than a new deal with Baghdad.

“We are in a new reality now, and it’s clear Iraq will never be ruled by one man, one sect, or party,” said Hiwa Osman, an analyst and writer based in Erbil. “The new Iraq is to be managed, not ruled. Managing the relationships between the various regions is the only way forward if the country wants to stay together.”

A political solution out of the parliament tomorrow is unlikely. Not only has al-Maliki shown he’s unwilling to compromise, but Osman says those Sunnis who will be sitting in the opening session on Tuesday don’t have the necessary influence in the areas of the newly declared caliphate.

“If they were really the players, they would be on the ground in Mosul, in Tikrit, in Nineveh,” said Osman. “Not in Baghdad.”

TIME Iraq

Life in Mosul Gets Back to Normal, Even With ISIS in Control

Demonstrators chant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16, 2014.
Demonstrators chant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16, 2014. AP

Residents of the Iraqi city say little has changed since the takeover, as the militants aim to gain the trust of the Sunni population

Two weeks ago, Governor Atheel Nujeifi oversaw the city of Mosul and its surrounding province of 3.8 million people. Today, he’s holding meetings on the eighteenth floor of a luxury hotel in Erbil, some 50 miles away from Mosul.

His security detail sits at the end of the hall, his eyes locked on Nujeifi’s door, and a handgun tucked under his shirt.

“They have made maybe ten attempts on my life,” said Nujeifi, who left Mosul with his entourage of 20 armed guards when militants under the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took the city on June 10.

The group now controls swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory including two major Iraqi cities, Mosul and Tikrit, and have launched an offensive to take over the country’s largest oil refinery. Initially, hundreds of thousands of people fled Mosul, but within days many residents returned to the city to live under the rule of a group so radical even Al-Qaeda distanced itself from the fighters. And to many, it’s a distinct improvement.

“Do you know how it was in Mosul before ISIS came? We had bombings and assassinations almost everyday. Now we have security,” said Abu Sadr, who asked to be identified by a nickname, from his home in Mosul’s Hay Al Sukar neigbourhood. “I’m going to work, going to the market, like normal, and people are coming back to the city.”

According to Abu Sadr it is basically life as usual in Mosul. There is little of the tyrannical Islamic Sharia enforcement the group’s name has become synonymous with. Abu Sadr has seen Pakistani, Afghani and Syrian fighters amid the Iraqi ISIS recruits, but says the fighters have yet to adorn the city with their signature black flag. They fly them only above their checkpoints, which some residents say are fewer than the army had there, two weeks ago.

“The streets are a bit quiet, some people are staying inside,” he said.

That doesn’t mean things are easy under ISIS control. The internet has been cut and residents complain of limited fuel and water, and 22 hours per day without electricity, while temperatures hit above 110 °F. “Since June 10, no fuel has come into Mosul,” Nujeifi, the city’s governor, says. Lines are now forming outside petrol stations in the adjacent Kurdish territory, as Mosul residents come to buy fuel and return.

ISIS has tried to nominate a new governor from among the ranks of old Baathist officers, but no one was willing, according to Nujeifi. “They all refused because they know there is no future with ISIS,” he said. “They are not able to run the city by themselves.”

But for many in Mosul who despised the rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government from Baghdad, a lack of services is not the most important thing. “We don’t have water or power but we have security,” said Omar, who came to Erbil from his native Mosul on Tuesday, a week after ISIS took the city. The streets of Mosul are calm, he said, and he only left for his job as a chef at this hotel in Kurdish Erbil. “They are not making any problems with the local people. ISIS only came for the army.”

The army didn’t stay. Iraqi troops abandoned their posts leaving a trail of weapons and uniforms. This week ISIS posted a series of gruesome photos online, claiming the mass execution of 1,700 Iraqi soldiers. The photos could not be verified, but came amid a wave of documented killings of army, police and civilians connected to al-Maliki’s government.

Some say this is a taste of what is to come in Mosul, and other places where the black flag of ISIS now flies. “ISIS has only been 10 days in Mosul…wait six months,” interjects Hassan, a Syrian from the city of Raqqa, standing at the hotel. “At first they make you love them, but wait.”

ISIS seized control of Raqqa in 2013, after the city was captured by Syrian rebels. Hassan says the first months were relatively normal. But soon ISIS imposed strict Sharia law, mandating conservative dress and prayer and burning piles of cigarettes, which are seen as sinful. Those who broke the rules received public lashings.

“I think we are all waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. That it hasn’t dropped yet may be less a matter of ideology than one of resources, he says. If ISIS wants to build its Islamic caliphate from Mosul to Raqqa, it will need more than just the few thousand fighters it’s estimated to have in Iraq.

“They have made some remarkable gains, but they are still really few in number and trying to control an enormous amount of space,” says Pollack. “And they have a lot of competition in the form of the other Sunni militant groups and the Sunni tribes.”

In Syria, ISIS now fights both the government of Bashar Al-Assad and other rebel groups. Facing the Sunni tribes of Iraq, and their latent military power, would put their new gains at riskso in places like Mosul, ISIS is staying on its best behavior. This approach seems to have brought them into a cautious alliance with the Sunni population that was disenfranchised for years by al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government. But at some point ex-Baathist nationalism and ISIS’s Islamic aspirations may clash.

“ISIS alone is never going to be able to hold this territory, never mind conquer more,” said Pollack. “Right now they are minding their Ps and Qs because they are trying to recruit and trying to expand their control.”

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