Half A Million Iraqis Flee As Militants Move South

The militant advance in Iraq continued south as hundreds of thousands flee Mosul, a northern city which recently fell. NPR's Alice Fordham reports from northern Iraq on what the refugees and leaders are saying about the fast-moving extremist storm.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. In Iraq, swaths of the country of fallen to Islamist militants. They took the largest city of Mosul earlier this week. Now they're heading south. Today there are reports the militants have taken the city of Tikrit, an hour's drive from the capital, Baghdad. NPR's Alice Fordham has the latest.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The radical group is called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. It's a rogue Al Qaeda offshoot, and in the last few days it's come closer than ever to achieving its goal - sweeping away the sandy borders between Iraq and Syria, and imposing its rules on the territory. The biggest city that's yet fallen to the militants is Mosul. About half a million people have fled Mosul, and at this checkpoint hundreds are trying to get into the safest city of Erbil in northern Iraq. It's a sad scene. Not everyone is allowed to pass. They're relying on charitable locals bringing food and water. God knows, they say, when they'll go back. But they also say what happened in Mosul was not a simple defeat of the Iraqi army by Isis. First, they say the Army didn't put up a fight. This man, sheltering in a patch of shade, Mahmoud Khoudr, says militants overran his neighborhood, cars were aflame, people were terrified and left helpless by government troops.

MAHMOUD KHOUDR: (Through translator) They didn't have any plans to fight back. That was all wrong - all wrong. This is crazy - just to lose a big city in four days like this. It's illogical. Even a child would laugh at this.

FORDHAM: And people say it was not just the militants they were trying to escape.

FOUAD: (Through translator) No, no, no, the armed men didn't harm anyone. On the contrary, they reassured the people and told them to stay home. They told them, we're not coming to your houses, we're coming to bring down the army and the government.

FORDHAM: Several people say the militants didn't fire a single shot at the civilians. He's eager to talk, but gives only his first name, Fouad, because he worries about threats from ISIS, but then he adds he's much more afraid of the army.

FOUAD: (Through translator) All those people you see lined up here - they're most afraid of the reaction of the government. You know the government will surely retaliate. So they will shell with barrel bombs and things like that. So everyone would like to escape alive.

FORDHAM: So far, the militant offensive has struck only in Sunni Muslim areas, where it can draw strength from deep distrust of the Shiite-led government. I meet Atheel Nujaifi, the governor of Mosul, taking refuge in Erbil.

GOVERNOR ATHEEL NUJAIFI: The army who was in Mosul, they did very bad things. The people in Mosul think that the Army doing that because it's for sectarian purpose.

FORDHAM: Nujaifi says the groups in Mosul tell the largely Sunni population that they are Sunni like them, and they won't treat them badly like the Army, which is mostly Shiite, did. He alleges the militants took over a branch of the central bank and is now disturbing money to the citizens. Nujaifi adds that bolstering the numbers of the hardcore ISIS fighters, are many Iraqi Sunni groups fighting alongside them. Many of them fought against American troops here or with the army under Saddam Hussein and have some support among the population. Nujaifi seems to loathe the army, who he says took over Mosul and assured him they were equipped to fight militants.

NUJAIFI: I feel they cheating me.

FORDHAM: You felt they were cheating you?

NUJAIFI: I feel they are cheating me by cheating all the Iraqi people and Moslawi people.

FORDHAM: Today in Mosul, militants stormed the Turkish consulate, taking schools of people hostage. And in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said his country was ready for a long battle against terrorism. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Erbil.

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