In A Back-And-Forth Battle, An Iraqi Town Splits On Ethnic Lines : Parallels When the Islamic State seized the town of Zumar, the Kurds fled. Now Kurdish fighters have taken control, and it's the Arabs who have been driven out. Is this the future of Iraq?

In A Back-And-Forth Battle, An Iraqi Town Splits On Ethnic Lines

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In Iraq, ISIS militants have taken over key cities in the western and northern regions. But ISIS isn't the only factor threatening to break the country a part. There's also deep distrust between communities. NPR's Leila Fadel visited an area retaken from ISIS and found it seething with ethnic tensions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: We're driving towards Zumar in Northern Iraq. This area is a window into fierce battles for territory between the Kurds and ISIS. ISIS took control of this mountainous area of Kurds and Arabs in August until late October, when Kurdish forces along with U.S.-led air strikes forced the militants back. But just because ISIS is gone, it doesn't mean the dispute over this land is over.

Kurds and Arabs have claimed the same territory for decades. And now Kurds appear to be staking their claim to all of it.

We make a stop on the way. We're just outside Zumar, and in front of me is what was an Arab village. And now every house is on the ground, completely destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Two young, Kurdish soldiers or peshmerga who are riding with us say that when ISIS invaded, local Arabs celebrated. The soldiers say the Arab villagers accuse the Kurds of being occupiers and thanked the Sunni extremists.

Some of the homes were reduced to rubble by U.S.-led air strikes. And the ones that were left standing, the peshmerga blew up. The Arabs are not welcome here anymore, the Kurdish fighters say. It's a stark sign of what we find ahead. When we arrive in Zumar, the streets are all but empty.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: OK, he said don't leave the street.

FADEL: I try to get out of the car on a street of destroyed stores, but a truck of Kurdish soldiers stop us. They say they haven't completely cleared the area. ISIS rigged the homes with explosives and left bombs hidden in pots and buried underground.

Hello. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: We drive on and find a family who returned home 10 days ago. Like that village on the road, their city looks like a war zone. Many homes are nothing but rubble; some destroyed by air strikes, others by ISIS bombings. And twisted pickup trucks that once belonged to ISIS litter the streets.

MOHAMED ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Mohamed and Ahmed Ali are Kurdish brothers and one of only a few families who've returned. When Mohamed came home, he says he kissed the dirt in front of his house and the walls that were still standing. He never thought he'd see this place again. But, he says, his neighbors, Arabs, have not and cannot come home. They are traders he says.

AHMED ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: His brother Ahmed says that when ISIS invaded, he was briefly held at gunpoint by an Arab neighbor fighting with ISIS. The gunman was masked, but when Ahmed's son recognized the masked man's voice, the gunman let Ahmed go telling him to leave town.

I see graffiti on the walls throughout the city and ask what it means.

I still don't understand what Mahjouz is. It means booked, it means reserved, but why are they writing it?

M. ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Mohamed says that Kurds who came back and found their homes destroyed by ISIS are now writing the word reserved on Arab homes to take them for themselves. They believe the Arabs sided with ISIS when the extremists invaded, and Kurds had to flee.

M. ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: He points to the homes across the road and says those homes are Arab and all of the ones behind them. He says they can never come back. Now the Arabs of Zumar are not here to tell their side of the story. Most Sunni-Arabs don't back ISIS and many have been killed for fighting the group, which isn't exclusively Sunni-Arab.

But ISIS does seize on historic grievances to further its cause, like the tensions between Kurds and Arabs. In some areas, Arabs are pushing out Kurds; in others, Shia-Muslims are forcing out Sunnis.

Before leaving town, we meet a Kurdish man, Ismael Ali Ibrahim. He's just returned today after months of displacement. He walks us through his kitchen. A rocket pierced a whole in the wall and glass and gravel cover the floor. One of his kids' toys, a little stuffed Santa Claus, lay in the rubble.

ISMAEL ALI IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Between sobs he says, I blame the state and politics for this. We don't know where ISIS came from or what they want. He says he wants Iraq to stay united. But when I ask him if his Arab neighbors should come back...

IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: He says no. They were the cause of all these problems. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Erbil.

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