ISIS seizes vital post on border of Iraq and Syria
Latest victory strategically and symbolically important to jihadist group
"The situation is changing by the hour," warns a senior Kurdish intelligence officer, after news that jihadist group ISIS seized control of a vital border post on the Iraq/Syria border early yesterday.
ISIS, whose central objective is the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate (empire) in greater Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean is said to have broken through the colonial borders, drawn by Britain and France nearly a century ago, linking the vast swathes of land it captured in Syria in to the town of Al-Qaim, about 200 miles west of Baghdad.
For ISIS, this latest triumph, amid a wave of victories in the key cities of Tikrit and Mosul, is not just strategically significant, but symbolically important as the removal of all regional borders in imposing an Islamic empire, ruled by a harsh and fatalistic interpretation of Islamic law, forms a central part of its modus operandi.
Meanwhile, tensions flared at the border crossing from Mosul in to Erbil on Friday as a number of men were arrested for trying to smuggle oil back to Iraq's largest city – oil prices have reportedly risen by three to five times the normal amount in the now ISIS-controlled city – while in the other direction, displaced Iraqis, having travelled the short distance from Mosul, projected their frustrations on Kurdish soldiers manning the checkpoints.
In Mosul, while Kurdish and other soldiers were reporting a relative calm after several days of bombardment from Iraqi air strikes and gunfire from ISIS militants, residents continued to flee their homes, fearing their likely fate if they remain in the hands of ISIS jihadists.
"I'm worrying for my two sons who are still in Mosul – they are Sunni and I think ISIS will force them into joining," said Mohammad, a 46-year-old Sunni at the Mosul/ Erbil border.
"They say to young men that it is their duty to join jihad, against the Shia who will not repent. The government military will kill them if they join; so both of them are going to destroy my sons if they stay in Mosul."
UN officials and Kurdish military sources said forced recruitment of young men in Mosul is a problem for many families – another reason that they wish to flee.
"Family members are fighting with either Iraqi forces or militia," says Hero Anbar from Iraq's REACH organisation, which is assisting 500,000 civilians fleeing the violence.
REACH, which is part-funded by Irish Aid through Christian Aid, Dublin, said the demand on NGOs is growing exponentially as families from both sides of the divide crowd into tents in temperatures reaching nearly 50C.
Abu Ebrahim and his wife Um Ebrahim left Mosul on June 16 with their three children after a number of days living under ISIS rule.
"They don't have any mercy; they killed six soldiers in the Iraqi army – I saw their bodies. There were three bodies in the pick-up and three bodies on the road.
"How can I trust them? They're not even my nationality – their faces are different from the Iraqi people. They're from Africa and Europe – they're not even Iraqi and they are causing so much hatred and death in my country."
Meanwhile in Baghdad, a resurgence of the Shia militia led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has dramatically raised the spectre of further sectarian bloodshed in Iraq.
Thousands of members of the Mahdi army marched in the city of Sadr yesterday. A visceral anti-American radical, military leader al-Sadr rallied the troops weeks ago when he called for Shia to defend its holy sites.
Never far from any narrative among many Iraqis is the deep disdain felt towards Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, particularly from Sunni Muslims from Mosul who blame his polarising authoritarian policies for allowing groups like ISIS to flourish.
"Nouri al-Maliki, after eight years of ruling in Iraq, failed to bring security in Iraq," said Professor Zirak Abdul Rahman, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
"This is a kind of uprising against Shia; Maliki punished Sunni throughout his leadership.
"The Sunni now, with support from outside countries, are supporting this struggle against Maliki. But they are also the sons of Mosul and Tikrit and have suffered under Maliki.
"Saddam (Hussein) was not a good guy but he was better than this situation. We could travel to Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk. There was complete security there but now we can't. It's too dangerous.
"After Saddam's collapse there are suicide bombings, car bombings or other bombings in Baghdad. Anytime, anywhere you are exposed to such bombing by DAA'SH (local name for ISIS).
"America regrets coming to Iraq; they fell in Iraq, so I doubt Barack Obama will do anything – anyway, we need to divide Iraq. Let us have our regions – for the Kurds, the Sunni and the Shia.
"We can all live together that way."
An emergency appeal for Iraq has been launched by Christian Aid. If you would like to donate, call (01) 901 5035 or visit christianaid.ie.
Shona Murray is a Newstalk 106FM journalist.