Luqman decided to flee his hometown of Mosul after he heard of the new rules for local residents published by the militants who took the city from the Iraqi government on June 9. According to the oil company accountant, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had banned alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes, instructed women to go out only if necessary and only while veiled, and pledged to punish thieves by amputating their hands. Luqman, who declined to be identified by his last name, had a more pressing reason to escape the city’s new rulers: He is a Shiite, a member of a religious sect that the Sunni extremists consider apostate. “As long as Da’ash are in Mosul,” he says, using the group’s abbreviated Arabic name, “I cannot come back.”
On Saturday, about 20 miles east of Mosul, Luqman’s car was one of a mass of vehicles waiting to be waved into Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, the wealthy, semiautonomous enclave that has so far avoided the violence of Iraq’s accelerating implosion. A Kurdish fighter manning the checkpoint says that at the beginning last week the road had been backed up for several miles, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Mosul after its lightning-quick capture by ISIS. The flood of refugees, he says, has since slowed considerably.
In fact, there seems to be a noticeable uptick in traffic returning to the fallen city—and it’s further evidence of the way Iraq is divided between Sunni and Shiite factions. Even with their neighborhoods under ISIS control—and even with reports that the jihadists had executed as many as 1,700 Iraqi soldiers, all Shiites, in the city of Tikrit 140 miles to the south—many Mosul residents were choosing to head back home from the autonomous region ruled by the Kurdish people, an ethnic group distinct from the Sunni and Shiite Arabs who predominate the rest of Iraq.
Most of those returning were Sunni Arabs. They believed that the worst, including the threat of airstrikes, was now over. Some were ready to welcome the extremists as liberators, not occupiers. Others figured that ISIS rule was the lesser of two evils compared with the government of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, based in Baghdad. The ISIS has begun a military campaign against Baghdad itself even as the central government vows to retake the huge areas now occupied by the militants.
Life with the jihadists—some of them homegrown, others from places including Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan—was “a million times better” than with Maliki’s officials, says Saad, a young father of three who remained in Mosul. He had driven to Erbil to pick up his wife and children, whom he sent over for safety last week. Now, he says, it was safe to return: Mosul’s new rulers “were on the corners, on the streets, providing security. They’re courteous. If people greet them, they greet them back.” The Sunni Muslim adds, “Maliki has been in power for eight years, and there’s been no improvement, at least not for Sunnis. There’s been no services, no electricity, no jobs.” The insurgents, he says, were providing cheap gasoline, removing roadblocks, and restoring electricity. “Whoever comes to Mosul and serves the people, we will support them, no matter who they are.”
Asma, an elementary school teacher, was headed back as well, in a minivan with her son behind the wheel and her daughters squeezed into the back. She says that she, too, was fed up with the daily humiliation that she and her family had endured under the Maliki regime: Random searches had become routine, jobs were dished out to Shiites, and policemen demanded bribes in exchange for protection. She says the cops harassed young people and repeatedly beat up her son. All that, she hopes, would now come to an end. Still, Asma insists, she does not want ISIS in charge over the long run. “We don’t want Da’ash. We want a government that will respect us.”
Between those fleeing, and those returning, were those in limbo. At a refugee camp set up a few hundred yards north of the checkpoint, a group of Iraqi soldiers and police officers, dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts, sat listlessly inside a large tent. They had escaped Mosul, along with tens of thousands of other deserters, on the night of June 9, leaving their uniforms and weapons behind. “The commanders were the first ones to leave,” says Ahmet, who identified himself as a member of a SWAT team. “What’s a simple soldier to do? We took our uniforms off, and we left as soon as possible.”
They could not go back Mosul for fear of death. “Da’ash have checkpoints all over [Mosul],” says Mohamed, potbellied and notably older than the others, reclining on a thin mattress. The militants had a database with all the names of all local Iraqi policemen and soldiers, including his, he claims. “When you pass through a checkpoint, they take your ID, they check your name on a laptop, and if it comes up they will punish or kill you.” The soldiers had little choice but to head for Kurdistan, where they knew they would be detained at the border. They cannot enter the capital Erbil without a local resident who could vouch for them.
Time is on the insurgents’ side, Ahmet warns. Even if ISIS itself is thought to number only about 10,000 militants, he says, its ranks have recently swelled with other Sunni militias, officers from the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein, and new recruits. “Many more thousands will join. If a family has four boys, Da’ash will take three of them and leave one. They will only get stronger. If they are to be stopped, it is now or never.”