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Pro-government forces in Iraq have put their fight to retake the town of Tikrit on hold. The town was captured by the self-declared Islamic State in June along with the larger city of Mosul. Iraqi officials say Tikrit would be a step toward taking back Mosul. For a glimpse of life under ISIS control, NPR's Deborah Amos spoke to an Iraqi who fled Mosul last August, but keeps in touch with his family there.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: He lives at the Motel Delicious - a seedy place despite the enticing name, with parakeets in the lobby and every room packed with neighbors from Mosul. A professor, he fled the city in August with his wife and kids. We can't name him because his extended family still lives in Mosul. They call him when they can. On a drive to a local restaurant, he tells me ISIS is more paranoid now. Six months ago, they blew up the cellphone towers. His relatives call late at night, standing on the roof top to catch distant signals. Recently ISIS shut down all escape routes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So dangerous to try to get out of Mosul now.
AMOS: Getting out was never easy. Residents could go if they pledged to return, but had to hand over documents for cars and houses as a guarantee.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nowadays they forbid everything - anyone cannot get out of Mosul.
AMOS: The only way out is to get smuggled out.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.
AMOS: Thousands of Sunni Arabs escaped here to Erbil when ISIS first tightened the rules in Mosul. They fled a city where beheadings and floggings became routine. As the waiter here sets out platters of hot bread and grilled meats, I ask is this kind of meal still available in Mosul?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everything is available there. And there's people still taking salaries from government. Maybe at least 30 or 40 percent of people are still taking salaries.
AMOS: Baghdad spends up to $16 million a month for the government payroll, but ISIS taxes the wages and takes a cut, say Western diplomats. Fighters are now on edge as coalition airstrikes hit their military bases and convoys. Some are pulling out of Mosul to head for Syria. The professor's relatives report there's tension among local and foreign fighters.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I saw them fighting. He said some of the foreigners started to take their families and to travel outside of Iraq, and the local fighters reject.
AMOS: On Tuesday, Iraqi government planes dropped 2 million leaflets over Mosul promising liberation soon, but that seems unlikely. U.S. officials say the Iraqi army is far from ready. And the first government assault on ISIS in Tikrit has stalled for more than a week. Even there that fight is led by Shiite militias backed and trained by Iran.
QUBAD TALABANI: OK, fine. You bring in the military force and you fight the terrorists there, you evict them, then what?
AMOS: That's Qubad Talabani, the vice president of the Kurdish regional government. He says Iraq's pro-government militias may be able to take back Tikrit, but can they hold it? And Mosul will be even harder. It's a city with more than a million civilians, mostly Sunni Arabs. They welcomed ISIS militants when they first arrived because they saw them as protectors against an oppressive Shiite-dominated government and army. Now the Sunnis of Mosul see Shiite forces battling ISIS in Tikrit.
TALABANI: That's the problem with the Tikrit operation, that it is a purely Shiite-led military operation against a heavily Sunni place of the country. This is Saddam's birthplace here, with no political endgame anywhere in sight, not for the people of Tikrit, not for the Sunnis of Iraq.
AMOS: For the Sunnis of Mosul, attitudes have changed, says the professor, after eight months of ISIS rule.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They are rejecting nowadays, not like June, July or August, you know? Every day the rejectance increasing.
AMOS: Do you think now that ISIS is losing?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Started to lose - they started to lose when they lost the people.
AMOS: But it's still not clear that a loss for ISIS is a win for Baghdad as the push into Tikrit and Mosul is on hold. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Erbil.
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