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Iraqi refugees debate intentions of brutal al-Qaida splinter group ISIS

| Sunday, June 15, 2014, 6:57 p.m.
Ted Nieters | For the Tribune-Review
Refugees from Mosul share supplies on Sunday, June 15, 2014, in a refugee camp near the Khazer checkpoint in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.

KHAZER, Iraq — Kurdish soldiers in tan camouflage, some with U.S. insignia, guard the checkpoint here between Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and Erbil, the capital of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave.

Women and children are huddled in the bed of an idling pickup truck with few belongings. Ethnic Turkmen, they hoped to stay with friends in Erbil.

“We are afraid ISIS will attack us,” said Saleh Abdullah, 46, the truck's driver, referring to the brutal al-Qaida splinter group — Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — that overran Mosul more than a week ago.

“There is no government, no army, and we don't know if it is ISIS or thieves, but everyone has guns,” he said.

Nearby, other Iraqis crammed their families into blue United Nations tents.

Saddam Hazem, 38, was among the new arrivals. “They want to kill me,” he said of ISIS.

A barber, Hazem had a shop near a military checkpoint in Mosul where he cut the hair of Iraqi soldiers. Those soldiers ran when ISIS seized the city with help from Sunni Muslims, who oppose the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

Hazem fled, too, but later returned to his barbershop.

“There were several gunmen, and they pointed and cocked their guns at me and said, ‘Here is the apostate,' ” he said.

He hid in a friend's home, he said, while “ISIS criminals” hunted for him. “When they couldn't find me, they burned my car. It had my passport and my Iraqi ID. That is all gone now.

“We walked around 18 miles, and all we saw were burned-out army vehicles. It was ghostly.”

Others refugees fled, fearing government airstrikes on Mosul.

Some praised ISIS fighters as “revolutionaries.”

“Their goal is to free the country” from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said Youseff Qarduri, 31, a taxi driver. “People say ISIS has foreign fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria, but they are real Iraqis like us.”

He and others, gathered under a U.N. tent, accused Iraqi soldiers of humiliating Sunnis and being corrupt.

“They are only working for the money, not for Iraq,” Qarduri said disdainfully. “We didn't see anything bad from the revolutionaries — they gave a one-time amnesty for those soldiers” to surrender.

The men in the tent said ISIS fighters reconnected electricity to their homes, and they denied reports of government buildings being looted. They said the fighters removed concrete security barriers that made it difficult to navigate across the city.

“We don't have anything against the Shia; it is just Maliki,” Qarduri insisted.

Abu Fatimah, 57, who recycles cans, went to the camp 10 days ago to escape artillery fire in his neighborhood. He insists on using a pseudonym, fearing persecution if he spoke out.

“ISIS doesn't like Maliki, and Maliki doesn't like ISIS. All of us are caught in the middle,” he said. “We want a leader who will rule with peace and justice and not divide us.”

Hazem, the barber, insists ISIS is a real threat: “They executed eight sheiks in the mosques because they wouldn't follow ISIS. Now cigarettes are forbidden, women can't go out — I saw it all.

“The ISIS gunmen are bothering the people, and some people are helping them.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at

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