Calm Or Violent Chaos, Life Under ISIS Depends On The City

Jun 16, 2014
Originally published on June 16, 2014 6:20 pm

People in northern Iraq are getting their first taste of life under ISIS — the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that captured the large Iraqi city of Mosul last week with shocking speed.

The Sunni extremist group holds much of the mainly Sunni areas of northern and western Iraq.

Over the weekend it launched a bloody takeover of Tal Afar, an ethnically and religiously mixed Iraqi city near the Syrian border.

All across the city of Mosul are black flags with the words "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the state of Ninewa." They're a proclamation that the group — so extreme that even al-Qaida has disavowed it — is firmly in control there.

Through phone calls with residents across the city, a picture of what life is like under ISIS is emerging.

We first spoke to Abu Mohamed, a day laborer who asked that we use his nickname for his security. He lives on the left bank of the Tigris River with his wife and two children.

Things are stabilizing, he says. The gunmen have even opened roads previously closed off by the Iraqi army. He says they're cleaning the streets, and armed men are policing long fuel lines and rationing gas. Each family gets a free tank of cooking gas.

For now, it appears ISIS is trying to win the trust of residents who didn't flee.

Abu Mohamed says he asked one of the fighters: "Brother, how do we know who you are; you're all in civilian clothes?"

The man responded: "Give us some time, we'll have uniforms and we'll pass out phone numbers for anyone who needs help to call us."

But Abu Mohamed does worry about who these men are. Were they released from prison when ISIS took the city? Will there be rapes? He doesn't know.

Already ISIS is boasting of mass executions of Shiite members of the security forces.

We also called Ziad al-Sinjari, a 40-year-old journalist who lives in central Mosul with his wife and five children.

To his surprise, the city is as calm as it's ever been since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. ISIS pulled down most of the gray concrete blast walls set up across the city. And Sinjari says there is no gunfire and no bombs.

He says masked gunmen are in control of the provincial headquarters and are flying the ISIS flag. There is even talk of forming a military advisory council to run the city.

Markets are open; food and water is available. But power is flickering on and off and the Internet is out.

And last Friday, ISIS set off alarm bells when it issued a declaration of laws called "order number 34" and read in mosques across the city. Those under our protection, the order says, are safe and should have peace of mind.

But those who are spreaders of evil will be subjected to killing, crucifixion or amputation. And women are ordered to stay inside; if they have to go outside they should cover up. People who worked with Iraq's government can repent, the order says, but those who don't will be killed.

There are a number of capital offenses, according to the charter. Gathering under any flag other than that of ISIS is a crime punishable by beheading.

Residents say that some of the armed men speak with accents from Tunisia or Egypt. And one displaced woman says she wept when she first saw the ISIS flag raised in her city.

But the mixed Shiite and Sunni town of Tal Afar — the latest captured — has already seen the brutal face of ISIS.

One Shiite man told us he escaped his home with his family under mortar shells and gunfire as ISIS took the town after an intense 24-hour battle.

He says the Shiites are terrified. When he calls people in the town, he's told ISIS is attacking Shiite mosques and places of worship. He may never go back; he fears that if he does, he will be killed.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. People in northern Iraq are getting their first taste of life under ISIS. That's the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Sunni extremist group captured the large Iraqi city of Mosul last week with shocking speed. Now it holds much of the mainly Sunni areas of northern and western Iraq.

BLOCK: The U.S. is still considering how or whether to intervene. Today, Secretary of State John Kerry told Yahoo! News that the U.S. is even open to talks with Iran to help stabilize the situation. In a moment we'll ask Iraq's ambassador to the U.S. what kind of support the Iraqi government is looking for.

SIEGEL: As the diplomacy unfolds, the militants march ahead. Over the weekend they launched a bloody takeover of an ethnically and religiously mixed city, Tal Afar, near the Syrian border. NPR's Leila Fadel reports ISIS is introducing itself with a mix of makeshift public services and mass executions.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: All across the city of Mosul are black flags with the words, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the state of Nineveh - a proclamation that this group, so extreme that even al-Qaeda has disavowed it, is firmly in control here. And through phone calls with residents across the city, a picture of what life is like under ISIS is emerging. First, we spoke to Abu Mohammed, a day laborer who spoke to us by phone and asked that we used his nickname for his security.

ABU MOHAMMED: (Arabic spoken).

FADEL: He lives on the left bank of the Tigris River with his two children and his wife.

MOHAMMED: (Arabic spoken).

FADEL: Things are stabilizing, he says. The gunmen have even opened roads previously closed off by the Iraqi Army. He says they're cleaning streets. Armed men are policing long fuel lines and rationing gas. Each family gets a free tank of cooking gas. And for now, it appears ISIS is trying to win the trust of those citizens who did not flee.

MOHAMMED: (Arabic spoken).

FADEL: Abu Mohammed says he asked one of the fighters, brother, how do we know who you are? You're all in civilian clothes. The man responded, give us some time. We'll have uniforms, and we'll pass out phone numbers for anyone who needs help so they can call us.

But Abu Mohammed does worry about who these men are. Were they released from prison when ISIS took the city? Will there be rapes? He doesn't know. Already, ISIS is boasting of mass executions of Shia members of the security forces. We also called Ziad al Sinjari.

ZIAD AL SINJARI: (Arabic spoken).

FADEL: He's a 40-year-old journalist who lives in central Mosul with his five children and his wife.

SINJARI: (Arabic spoken).

FADEL: To his surprise, the city is as calm as it's ever been since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. ISIS pulled down most of the gray concrete blast walls set up across the city, and Sinjari says there is no gunfire and no bombs.

SINJARI: (Arabic spoken).

FADEL: He says masked gunmen are in control of the provincial headquarters and are flying their flag. There is even talk of a formation of a military and advisory council to run the city. Markets are open. Food and water is available, but power is flickering on and off, and the Internet is out. And last Friday, ISIS set off alarm bells when it issued a declaration of laws, called order number 34, and read it in mosques across the city. Those under our protection, the order says, are safe and should have peace of mind, but those who are spreaders of evil will be subjected to killing, crucifixion or amputation. And women are ordered to stay inside, and if they have to go outside, they should cover up. People who worked with Iraq's government can repent, the order says, but those who don't will be killed. There are a lot of things you can be killed for, according to the charter. Gatherings under any flag other than that of ISIS is a crime punishable by beheading. Residents say that some of the armed men speak with accents from Tunisia or Egypt, and one displaced woman says she wept when she first saw the ISIS flag raised in her city. But the latest town captured is Tal Afar, and there, they've already seen the brutal face of ISIS. It's a mixed town of Shias and Sunnis.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Arabic spoken).

FADEL: One Shia man tells us he escaped his home with his family under mortar shells and gunfire, as ISIS took the town after an intense 24-hour battle. He says Shias are terrified. When he calls people in the town, he's told ISIS is attacking Shia mosques and places of worship. He may never go back. He fears that if he does, he will be killed. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Erbil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.