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Islamic Militants Surge Across Nothern Iraq


Let's hear a voice from Northern Iraq now. Just before the airstrike, we reached Wladimir van Wilgenburg. He's a reporter for the Mideast news site, Al-Monitor. He's in the city of Erbil and he's been monitoring the deteriorating humanitarian situation in this area.

So we are hearing about hundreds of thousands of people, members of religious minority groups, who are fleeing on foot. Can you just describe the scene for us?

WLADIMIR VAN WILGENBURG: Well, this has been an ongoing development since ISIS took over Mosul in June. So first, the Shia minority in Tel Afar - they fled to the Kurdistan region. Then the Christians the Kurdistan region and now the Yazidis are also fleeing to the Kurdistan region. In the city where I'm living now, there's like hundreds of Christians in a church and you can see people sleeping in the streets.

GREENE: And these are all minority groups who appeared to be targeted by ISIS and are being driven away from their homes and to places where they're trying to remain safe?

VAN WILGENBURG: Yeah, that's correct because for the Shia-Arabs - the majority in Iraq, but they are a minority in the Mosul region. For the ISIS, they are ready to be executed. They see them as deviating from the Islamic State. Then you have the Yazidis, who are a non-Muslim minority - who are sometimes seen by Muslims as devil worshipers because they are not part of the religion of the book. So ISIS will definitely execute them. And the Christians - they mostly fled because the ISIS is starting to impose Islamic tax and force them to either pay the Islamic tax or die.

GREENE: Well, I guess time is really a factor here. ISIS seems to be getting very close to the city of Erbil, the capital of this Kurdish semiautonomous region. I mean, what are you hearing, so far, from the Kurdish regional government, in terms of how they hoped to respond here?

VAN WILGENBURG: Well, the first problem's like a fear campaign by the ISIS - posting videos and images from people fleeing. So the Kurdish government issued several statements that Erbil's still safe and that the security forces are in control. But the problem was that, yesterday some of the Christian towns in the Nineveh plains of Mosul, which is not very far from Erbil - they fell to ISIS hands. But still, yesterday walking 'til 2 a.m. in the streets and you can still see a lot people out dancing and saying that we are ready to fight against ISIS. They're trying to show that they were not afraid.

GREENE: And let me just understand the situation here. I mean, you're saying that if these religious minorities were able to get to the Kurdish region and get to Erbil, there would be able to find relative safety. But problem right now is actually getting them out of the mountains and in these places that are in danger and getting into Erbil.

VAN WILGENBURG: So the ISIS - they took the town of Sinjar, in Kurdish known as Singal and outside of the town, there's Sinjar Mountains. And thousands of Yazidis - they fled through there and they were surrounded by the ISIS on several sides. But now there's like reports that Kurdish forces - the Kurdish peshmerga forces, but also Kurdish forces from Syria - they're trying to open a corridor. And now there are some reports that, at least, between 50 to 200 people have managed to flee. But there are still thousands of people in those mountains.

GREENE: You know, it strikes me. I mean, we have heard so much about the strength of ISIS. You sound pretty confident that the Kurdish regional government in the city of Erbil will be able to withstand whatever comes from ISIS.

VAN WILGENBURG: Yes, because the problems were in the disputed areas, where the Kurdish peshmerga were overstretched and where the peshmerga had just moved into some areas to protect Kurds and local minorities there. But now if the U.S. starts with air support, which was one of the main things the Kurds were lacking, and ammunition and intelligence support, it will be much more easier for the Kurds to push back the ISIS and maybe even be able to push back into Mosul and kick the ISIS outside of Mosul.

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking with Wladimir van Wilgenburg. He's a reporter for the online Mideast news site, Al-Monitor. And he joined us from the city of Erbil. Wladimir, thanks very much.

VAN WILGENBURG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.