As Militants Sweep South Across Iraq, A View From The North

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A shift in power is underway in Iraq, where the jihadi group ISIS has captured several cities in a recent offensive. Jane Arraf is a reporter for Al Jazeera America, and she comments on the violence.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Iraq is in disarray. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki today about the security situation there. The jihadist group known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is on a sweeping offensive. They've taken over major cities and ISIS militants are threatening to capture Baghdad. There now fewer than 60 miles away. Meantime, the Kurds in the north are using the chaos as an opportunity. They've expanded their own territory taking control of the city of Kirkuk. Joining us is Jane Arraf, she's an independent journalist who is in the Kurdistan region from northern Iraq and, Jane, obviously things are changing very quickly describe what you are seeing today in the Kurdish region.

JANE ARRAF: Well, just a few miles from the main city, Eribil, there's a checkpoint that where everybody has the past through when they're coming from Iraqi government controlled territory into the Kurdish region. And although it's the same country, it essentially is a border. So it's at that checkpoint, just 20 miles north of Mosul, where families and vehicles packed with belongings are still thronging the roads trying to get into the Kurdish territory. The Kurds aren't letting everybody in, only if you have a sponsor to vouch for you can you come into what is, essentially, Iraqi Kurdistan. So that has left, up to what officials say could be, 12,000 people in a refugee camp that sprung up on this dusty plain near the checkpoint over the past few days.

CORNISH: And as you mentioned Kurdish security forces are in charge there. And you've been talking to people in Kirkuk, what are they saying?

ARRAF: Kurdish officials are saying that they had to take control of parts of Kirkuk, they didn't already have control over to avoid a security vacuum. Their view is that the Iraqi security forces left and put the city in danger. So they've basically moved-in. Now, there's been something that certainly Kurdish political leaders have longed for a very long time. They have control of Kirkuk.

CORNISH: So is it fair to say that there are dual motivations here - that there is the taking of territory that, Kurds have always wanted, and also the defending against the onslaught by ISIS?

ARRAF: There is, it's kind of that perfect storm of there's no great course of action here for anybody. The way the Kurds see it though is that they have been the only thing that's stable in Iraq. Now this obviously threatens that with the unrest in Mosul and other cities so close to their borders but it is undisputable that they have the most disciplined forces, I mean, they've had decades more experience than the current Iraqi army in fighting.

CORNISH: And give us some more context about ISIS - how has it been able to advance so fast - is this about size or training?

ARRAF: A lot of it is about experience, ISIS is a reincarnation, a new version if you will of al-Qaida. And we're familiar with al-Qaida. Now, the two groups broke so they're not officially together but, essentially, they have taken everything they've learned and they're doing it better if you will. There are a lot of battle hardened fighters who have Syria experience who moved indirectly from Syria. So a lot of it is -this is a group that's been able to be very adaptable. It has forged links with other groups that have very different ideologies. But they all have the same goal which is toppling the Iraqi government.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, what happened to Iraqi security forces?

ARRAF: That is a great question. Anyone who watched this unfolding in the early days 2003, 2004 saw an army and a police force that had been disbanded and then very quickly regenerated by the United States trying to fend off al-Qaida as well as Shia militias. They didn't do a great job. Essentially, huge numbers of them deserted. They improved after that, but what we're seeing now is not so much to be just straight out desertion but also what appears to be, perhaps, orders by the Iraqi Army commanders for their men to withdraw.

CORNISH: That's Jane Arraf, she's an independent journalist reporting for the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ARRAF: Thank you.

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