In Iraq, Conflict Involving Sunni Militant Group Escalates

A Sunni militant group has captured swaths of Iraq including Mosul and the province surrounding it. Late Sunday, there were reports that the group had also seized Tal Afar.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The conflict in Iraq just keeps escalating after a Sunni Islamist group so extreme that even al-Qaida disavowed it captured swathes of northern Iraq that includes Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and the province surrounding it. Now U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry told Yahoo News that airstrikes, quote, "may well be one option." This comes as several hundred U.S. Marines are aboard ships, headed for the Gulf. This is after reports that the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, had also seized Tal Afar, a mixed Shiite and Sunni town. And ISIS has posted pictures online of an apparent massacre of Shiite-Iraqi men, said to be soldiers. NPR's Leila Fadel is in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil and joined us for more. Good morning.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So tell us about those pictures.

FADEL: Well, they were posted on Twitter accounts connected to ISIS itself. If real, it's a true massacre. Seventeen hundred people, according to ISIS. Shia soldiers, apparently, laid down a shot in the head. And the pictures are titled things like, the dirty Shias and things like this, sort of harkening to the sectarian warfare that's ahead for Iraq. Now, officials are kind of questioning whether these pictures are actually real.

MONTAGNE: And the situation inside Mosul, right now - you've spoken to residents there?

FADEL: Yes, and in speaking to residents, they're saying the power and water is back on. There are lines at the fuel station. The university is open. And life is going on as normal, for now. Civilians haven't been targeted, so far. But there is a fear, not only of these unknown gunmen, controlling the town, but fears of airstrikes to come, to battle them, from the government. So people are leaving because they're worried about those airstrikes that will inevitably come to Mosul.

MONTAGNE: And what about the people who in these past days got out of Mosul and other places, where there's been fighting. Have you been able to speak to those refugees?

FADEL: We have. People continued to flow out of Mosul. They're fleeing Takrit. They're fleeing Tal Afar, of course, which has recently, apparently, taken by ISIS. They're saying, they're afraid not of just the present, but of the future of the fight to come. They're saying that many of them - many of them say, they walked, they hitchhiked, some took cars. The wealthier have been able to get into the semiautonomous Kurdish region and rent a room, at a hotel. But the rest are staying in camps, in churches, in mosques and getting help from NGO workers. This is the worst humanitarian crisis in Iraq, since 2006, when the first civil war here broke out.

MONTAGNE: And tell us a bit more about ISIS, itself. Is it just this one group or are others fighting? Are others joining them?

FADEL: Well, they've taken huge portions of the country, at lightning speed; Ninawa, parts of Anbar, back in January, parts of Diyala, now, Takrit. It's all very fluid, and it's not just them because there has been such a sectarian - a feeling that the Sunni Arabs here are being marginalized by the Shia government. They've gotten support from Baathists, from different Sunni groups. Some saying, it's unfortunate that now we see such an extreme group, as our defender. But regular civilians just want to escape the violence. They don't want to be there, during this fight.

MONTAGNE: And, Leila, are we looking at another civil war in Iraq?

FADEL: I think it's very possible and in some places, already happening. We're seeing a country that is ripping apart, along ethnic and religious lines, ISIS is taking Sunni areas, mixed areas. The semiautonomous region in Kurdistan hardening their lines and taking territory they believe is theirs and the Shias in Baghdad, in the South.

MONTAGNE: Leila, thanks very much for joining us.

FADEL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Leila Fadel, speaking to us from Irbil, Iraq.

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