TIME Iraq

Kurds Welcome U.S. Help in Iraq, But Remember History of Betrayal

Kurdish military volunteers amass near the frontline at the outskirts of the town of Makhmor, 35 miles south of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Aug. 9. 2014.
Kurdish military volunteers amass near the frontline at the outskirts of the town of Makhmor, 35 miles south of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Aug. 9. 2014. Sebastian Meyer—The Washington Post/Corbis

A brief history of the Kurdish/U.S. relationship shows why

For a few hours, the city of Erbil was in a state of panic. Word came that Gwar, just 30 minutes from the Kurdish capital, had been taken by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Kurds and ex-pats alike were packing up, trying to book airline tickets or, in a worse case scenario, preparing to drive to Turkey. But then American war planes swooped in and began bombing and President Obama pledged to defend Erbil.

Kurds breathed a sigh of relief. “The most important development was the decision by the United States to save lives,” says Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign minister and a prominent Kurd. “U.S. help is deeply appreciated.” Dr. Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, welcomed the UN resolution condemning ISIS, and praised coalition forces for their technical and humanitarian assistance. He noted that the U.S. had co-ordinated tactical efforts with Peshmerga forces, allowing the Kurdish fighters to prepare to go on the offensive. “We used to say Kurds don’t have any friends but the mountains. But that doesn’t ring true anymore,” he said.

That said, many Kurds still carry lingering worries that the U.S. will betray them once again. “There’s a history of contact and betrayal with the U.S. and the Kurds where the U.S. made contact and helped but never jumped in with both feet,” says Quil Lawrence, author of The Invisible Nation: How the Kurds’ Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East, and a correspondent with NPR. “The Kurds have been very frustrated with a lot of the stages long the way,” he says. “But certainly these airstrikes would restore some of that trust. I feel like I’ve had many Kurds quote Churchill to me in the past week: ‘Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing… after they have exhausted all other possibilities.’”

Finally, it seems, the U.S. has exhausted all other possibilities in Iraq and all that’s left is to rely upon the Kurds. It’s only taken a century.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the Kurdish rebel leader Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji carried around in his pocket a copy of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, so inspired was he by American self-determination. And yet it would be the Americans who would help deny the Kurds the same right at nearly every turn. Two years after Wilson delivered that speech, the Allies agreed to an independent Kurdistan in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. But by 1923, in the Treaty of Lausanne that recognized Kemal Attaturk’s Turkey, the international community abandoned the Kurds and the referendum promised in the Treaty of Sevres was never realized. Thus began the Kurdish struggle for independence.

After several thwarted attempts to break away from Iraq, the Kurds finally got their first indirect aid from the U.S. in the early 1970s, more thanks to the Shah of Iran than anything else. In 1972, Iraq aligned with the Soviet Union and the Shah pushed the U.S. to arm the Kurds by selling them Soviet weapons seized in Egypt. By 1974, the Kurds were in open rebellion led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, of the same tribe Barzanji was from. But by 1975, Iran and Iraq made peace under the Algiers Accords. Iranian support for the Kurdish uprising abruptly came to a halt and the rebellion collapsed.

Barzani fled to Iran and then America, where he died in 1979, the same year of the Iranian Revolution, where yet again U.S. allegiances shifted. And, yet, again, the Kurds were the unwitting victim.

Towards the end of the First Gulf War, the Kurds saw a window for independence. Encouraged by the Americans, they rose up against Hussein for the third time. Hussein sent in the army and rolled over the Kurds, slaughtering thousands of villagers as they passed through. More than 1.5 million Kurds fled through the mountains to Turkey. American troops and arms never materialized, though they eventually sent in air support, which helped the Kurds push Hussein back to Kirkuk. In order to protect the Kurds, a no-fly zone was formed that lasted nearly a decade, until the Second Gulf War.

By the time the Turks refused America passage for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Kurds were in a position to offer themselves as a viable alternative. Fighting side-by-side with American special forces, the Kurds believed that their day had finally come: independence couldn’t be far away. But in the aftermath of the invasion, the Kurds were taken aback when the U.S. tried to disarm them and insisted they join the new government. Warily, the did so, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not been the partner they’d hoped for.

Maliki warned repeatedly that the Kurds did not have the authority to drill and export their own oil, and that empowering them would lead to the end of Iraq. By late 2011 some 60,000 Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi forces were at a stand off near Kirkuk over the oil dispute. But, then, in 2013, Fallujah fell to Sunni extremists and then in the summer of 2014, Mosul and Tikrit fell to ISIS. The Iraqi Army retreated back to Baghdad. The Kurds took full control of Kirkuk and its refinery.

But U.S. refusal to equip the Kurds, and Baghdad’s refusal to share U.S. arms with the peshmerga, left Kurdish forces weakened, low on ammunition and unable to defend a 600-mile border border. ISIS advanced within 30 minutes of the Kurdish capital of Erbil as panicked Kurds and foreign workers began packing and fleeing to the airport or north towards Turkey. Last week, the U.S. stepped in and bombed ISIS and President Obama pledged to defend Erbil. For the first time ever, the U.S. said it would directly arm Kurdish troops. It’s not exactly self-determination — but it’s a start.

 

TIME Iraq

Helicopter Delivering Aid to Refugees Crashes in Sinjar Mountains

A wounded man is carried away from the crash site of an Iraqi Air Force helicopter that crashed shortly after take off during a rescue mission in the Sinjar Mountains, Iraq, Aug. 12, 2014.
A wounded man is carried away from the crash site of an Iraqi Air Force helicopter that crashed shortly after take off during a rescue mission in the Sinjar Mountains, Iraq, Aug. 12, 2014. Moises Saman—Magnum for TIME

Pilot dies in crash, but Iraqi member of parliament and a photographer on assignment for TIME among the survivors

An Iraqi helicopter delivering aid to refugees stranded in the Sinjar mountains of northern Iraq crashed Tuesday, killing the pilot and injuring several passengers, including an Iraqi member of parliament and a photographer on assignment for TIME.

Photographer Moises SAMAN (Photo by Lorena Ros).
Photographer Moises Saman Photo by Lorena Ros via Magnum

Moises Saman, a photographer with the Magnum photo agency who has worked in Iraq and other countries in region for many years, was involved in the crash. Speaking to a TIME editor by cellphone from Northern Iraq after the incident, he said that the helicopter crashed soon after taking off, having picked up internally displaced Iraqis of the Yazidi ethnicity. The Yazidi civilians have been sheltering from Sunni Islamist militants for many days.

Saman said he had been pinned down by the weight of some of the passengers for a while but was unhurt other than suffering a minor cut on his head. When he spoke he was on his way to a hospital in the city of Dohuk as a precautionary measure.

Iraqi parliamentarian Vian Dakhil was among the survivors of the crash. Dakhil garnered international attention for her impassioned pleas on the floor of Iraq’s parliament to deliver aide to tens of thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority that fled into the mountains as ISIS fighters advanced northward into the Kurdish region of Iraq. The New York Times reported that its Paris bureau chief and veteran war correspondent Alissa J. Rubin, 56, survived the crash with injuries to her head and wrists.

A Kurdish official told the Times that the cause of the crash, though still undetermined, appeared to have been an accident and that no ISIS fighters were seen in the area at the time.

TIME Military

The U.S.’s Timid Third Iraq War

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Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take positions in northern Iraq on Tuesday. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP / Getty Images

Air strikes may help, but on their own they won’t turn the tide against ISIS

The contrasting views of two senior U.S. military leaders on the effectiveness of American air strikes against jihadist targets in northern Iraq could hardly have been more stark.

“Very effective,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters Monday in Sydney, Australia.

“Very temporary,” Army Lieut. General William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said later in the day at the Pentagon.

The conflicting signals were a sign of an Administration determined to do just enough to avert a humanitarian catastrophe without launching a third U.S.-Iraq war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL).

While F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s dropped 500-pound bombs on targets like artillery pieces, mortars and armored vehicles, aided by MQ-1 Predators and their 20-pound warheads, they didn’t appear to do much to change the situation on the ground. The U.S. Air Force and Navy are flying up to 100 attack, reconnaissance and support missions a day over Iraq.

Mayville’s briefing was as perplexing and unsatisfying as the 19 airstrikes the U.S. military carried out in Iraq through Aug. 11.

“I’m very concerned about the threat posed by ISIL in Iraq and in the region,” he said. “They’re very well-organized. They are very well equipped. They coordinate their operations. And they have thus far shown the ability to attack on multiple axes. This is not insignificant.”

So what is the U.S. military prepared to do to deal with this threat?

“There are no plans,” Mayville said, “to expand the current air campaign beyond the current self-defense activities.”

The U.S. military can only do what it is told to do, but the disconnect between threat and response seems especially wide right now. The goals are limited to rescuing the thousands (or tens of thousands; the Pentagon isn’t sure) of Yazidis trapped on, in and around Sinjar Mountain in northwestern Iraq, and to protect the Kurdish city of Erbil, where a small number of U.S. personnel, including about 40 recently-dispatched military advisers, are based. Warplanes launching the strikes come from air bases in Kuwait and Qatar and from the USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, a carrier named for the President who launched the first U.S. war against Iraq in 1991.

“We assess that U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq have slowed ISIL’s operational tempo and temporarily disrupted their advances toward the province of Erbil,” Mayville said. “However, these strikes are unlikely to affect ISIL’s overall capabilities or its operations in other areas of Iraq and Syria.”

Predictably, ISIS forces have begun to mix in with local civilians to elude U.S. attacks. “One of the things that we have seen with the ISIL forces is that where they have been in the open, they are now starting to dissipate and to hide amongst the people,” Mayville said. “The targeting in this is going to become more difficult.”

The U.S. has begun providing the Kurdish militias known as the Peshmerga with small-arms ammo directly, instead of funneling it through the central Iraq government in Baghdad, he added.

Anthony Zinni was the deputy commander of a U.S. effort to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s forces—Operational Provide Comfort—after 1991’s Gulf War. “The Peshmerga are fully capable, given the right weapons, equipment and support—like air support—of stopping ISIS in their tracks,” he says. “At least from the north.”

The number of Peshmerga waxes and wanes as the threats the Kurds perceive rise and fall. The U.S. estimated their fighting strength in 2011 at 70,000 to 80,000, but that number could double if all security and police forces are included.

“They’ve been fighting for a long time, against Saddam, with the PKK [Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party] up in Turkey, and even in Iran,” says Zinni, who ended his military career as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000. “They’ve been fighting an insurgency for a hell of a long time because they want a state. They’re also fighting for their homes, their families and their kids—when [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki sends a bunch of soldiers up into the Sunni areas they don’t care—but the Kurds know this is it, that this is an existential threat.”

The Kurds are fighters. “They do have a good warrior ethos—unlike the Iraqis, these are basically people who are agrarian, tough mountain people,” Zinni says. “They’re not fat cats. They haven’t been living in a garrison in a city. They train hard and live in a rugged part of the country. They live in an austere environment—all the things that make up a tough soldier.”

Zinni echoes U.S. military officers who privately grumble that Obama erred in declaring he would not send troops back into Iraq. “I think he made a big mistake in publicly saying he would not put boots on the ground,” Zinni says. “Why tell the other guy what you won’t do?

“You could find yourself with boots on the ground, if only to defend that part of country,” Zinni warns. “Not necessarily going on offense on the ground, but I think it could come to the point where if we had to defend it, we’d have to put boots on the ground, and I don’t think he could get out of that.”

Some U.S. military officers believe it would require up to 15,000 ground troops to turn the tide against ISIS in northern Iraq.

TIME Iraq

Obama Hails Iraq’s New Government

U.S. President Obama delivers a statement on the situation in Iraq from his vacation home at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the situation in Iraq from his vacation home at Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, Aug. 11, 2014 Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

"Today, Iraq took a promising step forward"

President Barack Obama offered his assistance to the new government emerging in Iraq on Monday, sending a clear message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he tries to cling to power: go.

In brief remarks from outside his vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard, Obama endorsed Iraqi Prime Minister–designate Haider al-Abadi as U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) entered their fourth day.

“Today, Iraq took a promising step forward,” Obama said, hours after al-Abadi was selected to be come the country’s next head of government. Obama said he and Vice President Joe Biden called al-Abadi to extend congratulations “and to urge him to form a new Cabinet as quickly as possible, one that’s inclusive of all Iraqis and one that represents all Iraqis.”

Iraq’s newly elected President named al-Abadi Prime Minister earlier on Monday, after the coalition of Shi‘ite political parties turned against the current Premier. Al-Maliki has since accused the President, Fouad Masoum, of carrying out a “coup against the constitution.”

Obama did not directly mention al-Maliki, who has resisted efforts to unify Iraqi sects against ISIS and has indicated he will challenge efforts to remove him from power, saying only, “I urge all Iraqi political leaders to work peacefully through the political process in the days ahead.”

“The United States stands ready to support a government that addresses the needs and grievances of all Iraqi people,” he added.

Obama acknowledged that there is no easy political solution to the crisis in Iraq. Before departing for vacation, Obama had said it would take more than weeks to solve the problem. “This is going to take some time,” he said Saturday.

“I’m sure that that there will be difficult days ahead,” Obama said Monday. “But just as the United States will remain vigilant against the threat posed to our people by [ISIS], we stand ready to partner with Iraq in its fight against these terrorist forces. Without question, that effort will be advanced as Iraqis continue to build on today’s process and come together to support a new and inclusive government.”

TIME Iraq

LIVE: Obama Speaks on Iraq Crisis

Live from Martha's Vineyard

President Obama is set to deliver a statement from Martha’s Vineyard on the situation in Iraq at 4:45 p.m. ET.

TIME foreign affairs

‘My People May Soon Be Gone’

Iraqi Yezidis fleeing to Turkey
Iraqi Yezidi people flee from Sinjar town of Mosul to Turkey due to the attacks of Islamic State-led armed groups in Silopi district of Turkey's Sirnak city, on August 7, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

It’s impossible for Christians or Muslims to truly understand life as a religious minority in the global sense, especially one as small and marginalized as the Yazidis

My friend Sinan and I were on the phone with a dying young man.

But this 23-year-old Iraqi was not dying from a car crash or a bullet wound. He was one of the estimated 50,000 Yazidis stranded on Sinjar Mountain who have been dying of thirst, besieged by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants.

“It is difficult to speak since I haven’t had water in three days,” the man wheezed through the line. “We don’t have anything–food, water, a place to sleep. We are eating the trees and their leaves. The [Kurdish] peshmerga hasn’t come, the Iraqi army hasn’t come, humanitarian aid hasn’t come. There are so many thousands of people here. I know at least 100 people have died already, many of them children.”

I could see Sinan, also a Yazidi and a friend of the man, becoming emotional, his bottom lip beginning to twitch. After we hung up, Sinan began sobbing into his hands. Two of his friends came over and patted him on the back, offering the standard condolence: “God-willing, things will get better.”

When they left, Sinan whispered through his palms, “They can’t understand. They are Muslim. Their religion is big, they are not alone like we are.”

It took me a minute to understand him, but he was right, and I can’t really understand either. As a Christian, it’s impossible for me or for our Muslim friends to truly understand life as a religious minority in the global sense, especially one as small and marginalized as the Yazidis.

Yazidis, who practice what is considered one of the oldest religions in the world, are monotheists who believe God (or Yasdan) created the world and seven angelic beings to govern it. The most prominent of these beings is Malak Tawous, an angel whom Muslims and Christians often identify with Satan. The Yazidis’ reverence for a being considered by other religions to be evil led many (particularly Muslims) to deem them “Satan worshippers” and Muslim and Christians alike have used that term to demonize Yazidis and to justify persecution against them.

By most estimates, there are only about half a million Yazidis left in Iraq, which means a significant number of their already dwindling population is on that mountain now, still dying, even as the United States has initiated humanitarian air drops and reportedly considers rescue missions.

As we talked a little more, Sinan showed me the updates his friends and family members were sharing via their cell phones in real time, while under siege. “He was studying math at the university,” “she baked the best naan bread,” “this man’s daughter is missing,” he would say as he thumbed through Facebook.

Sinan finally stood up and pocketed his phone, saying he needed to go. He asked me to “tell America” about his people.

Now tremendous American, Iraqi, and Kurdish efforts are being made, but the situation is still dire for many on the mountain who cannot reach the aid that has been dropped, for those displaced in cities and on highways, and for the hundreds of Yazidi women who were just taken captive by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants.

“My people may be gone soon,” Sinan said as he walked away.

Today, the U.S. is actively working to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Jeremy Courtney is executive director of Preemptive Love Coalition, an international development organization in Iraq, and author of Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time.

TIME Iraq

Leadership Crisis Hits Iraq as Aid Agencies Scramble to Help Refugees

Mideast Iraq
Iraqis chant pro-government slogans and wave national flags to show support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq on August 9, 2014. Karim Kadim — AP

Political discord, a humanitarian crisis in the north, and the ongoing war against Sunni extremists have rendered the situation in Iraq extremely unstable

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is resisting mounting pressure for his resignation, and has threatened to take legal action against the country’s President Fouad Massoum for failing to back his bid for a third term in office. The political discord comes as a humanitarian crisis continues to unfold in the country’s north, where tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing attacks being carried out by Sunni extremists.

Late on Sunday, Maliki accused Massoum of mounting “a coup on the constitution and the political process in a country that is governed by a democratic and federal system.”

Maliki says he is entitled to a third term because his coalition won in polls held in April. However, he has not earned support from the legislature.

“Getting the confidence of Parliament is key,” Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, tells TIME. “Maliki did not get that as a result of his mishandling of the current crisis in Iraq as well as his divisive policies over the two terms he has served as Prime Minister.”

The U.S., which has begun targeting militants in northern Iraq in limited airstrikes, urged caution. “The government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters,” Kerry told reporters in Sydney on Monday.

The embattled Shi’ite premier has been accused of stoking sectarian fighting by marginalizing Sunni rivals in the government and military in order to consolidate his grip on power since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011.

“It seems that Maliki’s priorities have been centered on trying to secure a third term for himself as Prime Minister rather than security of Iraq,” says Khatib. “His leadership performance has been abysmal.”

The New York Times reported early on Monday that the Prime Minister ordered tanks and an unspecified number of additional commandos to take up key positions within the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Sunday, spurring fears of confrontation with his political opponents.

Meanwhile, further north in Iraq’s Kurdish region, aid agencies continued to scramble to help the wave of refugees that was unleashed nine days ago, when forces loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) launched a savage military offensive in the region, aimed at removing religious minorities from the large swath of territory between Mosul and the Tigris River to the west.

“Their target towns have been towns, villages, areas where there are substantial non-Sunni, religious minorities,” says Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. ISIS’s goal, he said, “seems rather clear.”

The U.N. Refugee Agency reports at least 30,000 people have managed to escape from the mountains near Sinjar after being trapped there without water or supplies by ISIS forces. However, humanitarian groups on the ground said the situation in the region is still critical.

“Its imperative that we do everything in our power to ensure these people receive the life-saving assistance they need,” said David Swanson, an official with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Late last weekend, U.S. forces began dropping relief supplies, and targeting ISIS positions in Sinjar in an effort to break the group’s siege of the conflict zone.

TIME Iraq

Refugees Flood Kurdistan Border as ISIS Advances

Fishkhabur, Dohuk Province, Iraq. August 10, 2014.Yazidi families from Sinjar arrive at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq's Dohuk Province and Syria. Thousands of Yazidi families have fled their villages in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq and have sought refuge in Kurdish-controlled areas as ISIS militants moved into their area.(Photo by Moises Saman/MAGNUM)
Yazidi families from Sinjar arrive at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq's Dohuk Province and Syria, Aug. 10, 2014. Moises Saman—Magnum for TIME

"They're terrified and exhausted, and happy to be safe. But they're too traumatized to savor that"

Islamic militants continued their violent advance across Iraq Sunday as the humanitarian crisis escalated over the weekend, despite military action by the U.S. Thousands of religious minority Yazidis remain trapped by Sunni extremists in the country’s north even as Kurdistan, Iraq’s semiautonomous bastion of security, begins to look vulnerable.

On Sunday, Kurdish forces were able to rescue some 20,000 Yazidi Iraqis who had been trapped on Mount Sinjar, but many thousands remain trapped as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) makes its brutal advance north. An Iraqi government minister told Reuters that militants slaughtered 500 Yazidis on Sunday, including woman and children, and buried some alive — though there was no independent confirmation of the alleged massacre.

The U.S. has raised the stakes by committing to airstrikes against the militants as well as air drops to supply refugees with food and water. President Obama announced Saturday there would be no timetable for an end to U.S. support in the country.

Moises Saman, a longtime chronicler of conflicts in the Middle East who has covered the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, is in Iraq, photographing the impact of the conflict on the Yazidi population for TIME. On Sunday, he went to a border crossing into Kurdistan at Fishkhabur, where thousands of fleeing Yazidi refugees from the Sinjar mountains are seeking shelter. He spoke briefly with TIME from his hotel room.

14-year-old Tawaf Ismail, a Yazidi girl from Sinjar, rests next to her brothers after arriving at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq's Dohuk Province and Syria, Aug. 10, 2014.
14-year-old Tawaf Ismail, a Yazidi girl from Sinjar, rests next to her brothers after arriving at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq’s Dohuk Province and Syria, Aug. 10, 2014. Moises Saman—Magnum for TIME

TIME: What did you see today?
MS: There were thousands of families streaming through the [Fishkhabur] crossing, which is kind of an improvised bridge that’s been built over the river. Just a constant stream of people. It was mostly women and children. People were extremely tired. A lot of people just collapsed when they arrived. You could tell that they’ve been spending days outside. A lot of them didn’t have shoes and were extremely dirty.

Everybody was saying they’d been walking for days without food and water. That was the common thing I got from people they encountered. They’d been through this very traumatic journey, and they’re terrified and exhausted, and happy to be safe. But they’re too traumatized to savor that.

What is the humanitarian situation like when refugees arrive in Kurdistan?

The aid wasn’t very organized. There were people handing out water and I saw people handing out shoes and things like that, but it wasn’t as organized as you’d find in a refugee camp. They’re trying to improvise because they didn’t expect a massive influx of people here. They’re just trying to do the best they can.

A Yazidi family from Sinjar arrive at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq's Dohuk Province and Syria, Aug. 10, 2014.
A Yazidi family from Sinjar arrive at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq’s Dohuk Province and Syria, Aug. 10, 2014. Moises Saman—Magnum for TIME

How have Iraqis you’ve met reacted to the advance of ISIS militants?

Here you just hear “ISIS” in every conversation. It’s this scary thing that’s out there. ISIS has been so good at creating this propaganda that they’re so ruthless, and I think people are really scared of the. People do talk about [the militants] kidnapping women, the violence and beheadings. That their ruthlessness doesn’t seem to have a limit. It’s very dark and very real to people.

And ISIS is very much out there, taking towns and villages and been getting very close to [the regional capital of] Erbil, so I think the fear is very much real. People hearing rumors that they’re coming or advancing makes them flee ahead of them. That’s creating this dynamic that people are scared to death even just by rumors. That’s what seems to be creating this massive movement of people right now.

How much are Iraqis talking about U.S. aid or military assistance?
I didn’t pick up on that here. I think right now they’re not really aware. They don’t really know what’s happening as far as Americans bombing goes, and I didn’t pick up any “thank you” America kind of thing.

You’ve covered the civil war in Syria, where ISIS first gained a foothold. You’ve also been to Kurdistan in the last few months. What’s different now?

The number of women and children and old people surprised me. And people [in Kurdistan] seem more edgy. There are more people with guns out in the street, and you get the sense that it’s much more tense than a month ago.

This interview has been edited for clarity

TIME Military

U.S. No Longer Waging a Time-Share War

Peshmerga forces enter Makhmur
Kurdish Peshmerga forces regained some territory in northern Iraq on Sunday. Ensar Ozdemir / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Unlike Obama's earlier military orders, his Iraq plan lacks a deadline

President Obama was eager to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, is eager to pull them out of Afghanistan, and refused to put them into Libya and Syria. His reticence is justifiably rooted in opposition at home to any more ground combat following more than a decade of war after 9/11.

But over the weekend, he warned that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s threat to Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq warranted U.S. military airstrikes, and that they could continue over a sustained period of time. “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” he said Saturday. “This is going to take some time.” On Sunday, Kurdish forces reportedly ousted ISIS fighters from a pair of border towns 20 miles from Erbil as U.S. warplanes conducted a third consecutive day of attacks on ISIS forces.

Changes in waging war have proliferated since the so-called non-state actors known as al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center towers, attacked the Pentagon and sent United Flight 93 diving into a Pennsylvania field. The foe is elusive, metamorphosing from al-Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS, as the jihadist leaders wage battle among themselves for supremacy.

Any conflict that begins, as the latest Iraq venture did, with humanitarian airdrops to thousands of dehydrated and hungry Yazidis in and around Mount Sinjar makes for a different kind of war.

Obama said he acted because of concerns for the safety of U.S. military advisers and consular officials in Erbil, threatened by an ISIS advances over the past week. The advisers are there, and in Baghdad, to plot how the U.S. can aid the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki in its battle against ISIS. Without such a U.S. stake in Libya or Syria, he has felt no need to take military action there.

But the flames now burning around the Middle East are part of a larger conflagration, fueled by crumbling autocracies and religious zealots, who are recruiting unemployed young men eager to belong to something bigger than themselves.

The U.S. and other Western nations essentially are biding their time, hoping such fires will eventually die out with minimal involvement by them. That could happen.

But if ISIS succeeds in establishing anything approximating a real state straddling the Syrian-Iraq border, it will become a new launching pad for attacks against the U.S. and its interests, just like in Taliban-led Afghanistan.

“Every day that goes by, ISIS builds up this caliphate and it becomes a direct threat to the United States of America,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House subcommittee on counter-terrorism, told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “They are more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9/11.”

Obama and his successor know that they cannot allow a jihadist-run state, pledged to killing “infidels,” in the heart of the Middle East.

“I would be rushing equipment to Erbil,” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN Sunday. “I would be launching airstrikes, not only in Iraq but in Syria against ISIS.”

In a prescient comment that turned out to be correct, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned in 2003 that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be “a long, hard slog.” Americans tired of both, in part because of the Bush Administration’s ambitious, costly and unrealized plans for remaking both nations.

But what we’re seeing now is a new kind of war, and it requires a new kind of leadership.

Iraq, for its part, needs a leader who can gather its warring factions under one roof and turn it into a functioning 21st Century state.

If such a leader fails to materialize, Iraq will continue its slow-motion suicide.

Then it will take a U.S. leader who is willing to detail the possible risks of continued half-hearted actions—what the New York Times called “a Military Middle Road” in a Sunday headline—in the region. He—or she—will have to fashion a new kind of calibrated, and sustained, warfare that a democracy can support.

TIME National Security

Experts Warn of Terrorism Blowback From Iraq Air Strikes

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Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters look on as smoke billows from the town Makhmur, about 175 miles north of Baghdad, during clashes with ISIS militants on August 9, 2014 Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

ISIS has long threatened America openly — will Obama's strikes inspire it to act?

The American air strikes against a militant group in Iraq could motivate the fighters to retaliate with terrorist attacks against U.S. civilians, experts warn.

President Barack Obama’s air strikes against militants from the group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) “could increase the likelihood that ISIS or somebody inspired by ISIS, would strike against the homeland,” says Seth Jones, a terrorism expert with Rand Corp.

ISIS has long threatened America openly. In June the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warned Americans that “soon enough, you will be in direct confrontation [with us].” Last week a spokesman for the group vowed that “we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”

Despite that bombastic rhetoric, ISIS has thus far been consumed with its fights in Iraq and Syria, and with capturing territory to form an Islamic caliphate. But counterterrorism officials worry that the fanatical group could now place a higher priority on attacking Americans. Jihadists in online forums and on Twitter are already calling for terrorist attacks in response to Obama’s intervention in Iraq.

The prospect of blowback was on the mind of senior officials even before Obama approved air strikes last week.

“That’s one of the downsides of U.S. involvement,” former deputy CIA director Michael Morell told CBS News in June. “The more we visibly get involved in helping the [Iraqi] government fight these guys, the more we become a target.”

A U.S. intelligence official would not say whether the threat level has escalated, saying the U.S. continues to monitor the known ISIS threat. “ISIS has previously stated its willingness to strike targets outside of the region and the [intelligence community] is working in close coordination with our allies to track these threats,” says Brian Hale, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In July, Brett McGurk, the top State Department official for Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the 30 to 50 suicide bombers per month deployed in Syria and Iraq by ISIS “are increasingly Western passport holders,” and that “it is a matter of time before these suicide bombers are directed elsewhere.”

Several experts agreed that attacking ISIS will make the group more eager to strike back against America, but said the threat is hard to calculate — and no reason to avoid taking on the group.

“U.S. strikes against ISIS may well raise that group’s interest in carrying out terrorist attacks against U.S. targets,” says Daniel Benjamin, a former top State Department counterterrorism official now at Dartmouth College. “But the significance of that shouldn’t be overstated.”

Benjamin questions whether the ISIS threat has increased significantly, given its previously known desire to kill Americans. Regardless, he adds: “We can’t let our policies be held hostage by this concern.”

Obama’s strikes this month mark the first direct U.S. attacks on ISIS in its current form. But the U.S. military did battle with the group’s prior incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, during the U.S. occupation of that country in the mid-2000s. AQI never found a way to hit Americans beyond the Iraq battlefield.

But since splitting with al-Qaeda, broadening its ambition and declaring itself ISIS — and, more recently, the Islamic State — the group has attracted Westerners whose passports could grant them easy entry to Europe and the U.S.

“What is concerning, and which makes this situation different,” warns Jones of Rand Corp., is that large complement of Western fighters, which AQI did not posses. “The connections to this battlefield from the West are stronger than they were a decade ago.”

Jones says there’s precedent for the U.S. drawing the attention of a regionally focused terrorist group by targeting its ranks. The attempted 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, was trained and directed to strike the U.S. by the Pakistani Taliban, which sought revenge for American drone strikes against the group’s leadership.

At least one expert on Sunni radical groups doubts that Obama’s strikes make Americans any less safe, however.

“I don’t think this changes [ISIS's] calculus,” says Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They are likely planning attacks whether the U.S. conducts targeted air strikes or not. We shouldn’t have reactionary policy when it comes to [ISIS] anyway — why would we let them continue to grow just because they aren’t attacking us now?”

“In my opinion,” Zelin says, “we should destroy them as soon as possible.”

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