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Despite military advances, displaced Iraqis fear risks of returning home

August 18, 2014 at 6:41 PM EDT
Saving the Kurdish city of Irbil from the onslaught of Islamic State fighters was one of the goals of U.S. airstrikes launched earlier this month. But a sense of foreboding remains in the region, and many of the displaced residents don't feel safe enough to return. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner talks to Judy Woodruff from Irbil about the Kurdish Peshmerga’s retaking of Mosul dam.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama announced this afternoon that control over a critical dam in Northern Iraq had been taken away from Sunni militants. The Mosul dam was captured by the Islamic State group earlier this month.

But this weekend, there were conflicting reports over who was in full control over the facility, as Iraqi government troops and Kurdish Peshmerga forces advanced on the dam with the help of American air support. The dam is just one front line in the battle against the Islamic State group.

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner is on another nearby, where Peshmerga fighters are trying to hold recently regained ground against those Sunni militants.

MARGARET WARNER: Sixty miles due east of Mosul lies the booming city of Irbil, capital of the semiautonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, home to U.S. and foreign companies drawn by its oil wealth and development prospects. Office towers rise near high-end car dealerships, all baking in the 115-summer heat of the desert.

Saving this city from the onslaught of Islamic State fighters was one of the two goals President Obama cited in announcing U.S. airstrikes on August 7. Though the advance of I.S., also known as ISIS or ISIL, on Irbil was halted and rolled back, U.S. airstrikes in the area continue. And beneath the bustle of daily life here, there is still a sense of foreboding.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Of course. I’m so worried every night when I lie down on my bed.

MARGARET WARNER: For good reason. Just 40 miles southwest, outside the town of Makhmour, Kurdish military units, the Peshmerga, man the front lines against the fundamentalist Islamic State forces.

Makhmour was taken over by the Islamist militants just two weeks ago using sophisticated American-made weapons captured in June from fleeing Iraqi army units in the city of Mosul. But three days later, under cover of U.S. airstrikes hitting that ISIS heavy weaponry, Peshmerga retook Makhmour from the jihadi fighters.

Peshmerga Colonel Jabar Mohi Osman now commands the operation here.

COL. JABAR MOHI OSMAN, Peshmerga (through interpreter): The security situation is excellent. No one inside the town hears the sound of a single shot.

MARGARET WARNER: How important were the American airstrikes?

COL. JABAR MOHI OSMAN (through interpreter): The American role was very important, a very important psychological plus for the Peshmerga, destroyed most of the heavy weapons that I.S. had caught and made it easy for us to retake this town.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet all is not as secure as it seems. We’re on the very edge of the front line of the city of Makhmour. Less than one-and-a-half miles south of here are ISIS forces still with some heavily artillery. But the Peshmerga fighters here vow not only to hold this line, but to advance.

We were quickly urged to leave as the Peshmerga prepared to launch rockets at Islamic State artillery nearby. Back in Makhmour, despite the colonel’s assurances, we found a virtual ghost town. Only a few hundred of its nearly 20,000 residents who fled have returned, among them, English teacher Ziad Rafik Mohammed, who, unlike most returnees here, actually brought his family too.

He described what happened when Islamic State forces, which he shorthanded by its Kurdish Arabic Daash, began shelling the town and then moved in.

MAN: Daash is attacking like a savage. You see people that — but you see much more empty. Maybe the people you see here (INAUDIBLE) people much more…

MARGARET WARNER: Why did you come back?

MAN: Because, you see my — the building and my property from here. And I like my (INAUDIBLE) another attacking, shelling, but I don’t fear for myself, but maybe I fear for my children, for my wife.

MARGARET WARNER: Most internally displaced Iraqis have decided the risk is too high to go home. Tens of thousands are in the Irbil area, camping out wherever they can find shelter, like these 200 families from Mosul parked temporarily in abandoned storefronts.

KHASI SHABAN KADIR, Irbil (through interpreter): I wish I could die now.

MARGARET WARNER: Khasi Shaban Kadir, living with her family in a relative’s outbuilding in Irbil, escaped the ISIS onslaught on her tiny village on the outskirts of Makhmour, and despite the retaking of Makhmour, she’s too afraid to return.

KHASI SHABAN KADIR (through interpreter): If the situation remains like now, no. Where can I go back to? We don’t feel safe. We are afraid to go back because of the Arabs. They would kill us.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you mean your own Arab neighbors would have killed you or ISIL fighters?

KHASI SHABAN KADIR (through interpreter): Yes, we are actually very close to Arabs. Their villages are just next to ours. They have joined Daash in the fight.

MARGARET WARNER: She and her family are among an estimated 1.5 million Iraqis who fled the ISIS advance through their country just since January. Accompanying us was Tahir Tawfik Ahmed, senior adviser to the Kurdish regional government’s human rights commission. His phone was constantly buzzing with reports of new waves of internally displaced people pouring into the Kurdish region.

What plans are you making for the long-term care of these people here in Iraqi Kurdistan?

TAHIR TAWFIK AHMED, Human Rights Commission, Kurdistan Regional Government (through interpreter): We know the situation may last a long time. So the government has long-term plans for that. But this is a huge burden on the government’s shoulders. This is why we the Kurds have asked international agencies to help. We have millions of IDPs and refugees. And if they don’t feel safe to go home, the Kurds cannot provide aid for all of them alone.

MARGARET WARNER: For now, it appears the Kurdish government is on the hook. We went with Khasi Kadir’s 41-year-old son, Salim Sabah, back to a village of Palani on the outskirts of Makhmour, but we had to stop more than a mile away after Peshmerga warnings that the Islamic State forces may have booby-trapped his town.

SALMI SABAH KADIR (through interpreter): I want to go back to breathe the freedom, but I’m not sure I can. Before we fled, we had lots of animals, sheep and goats. We couldn’t take them and they died.

MARGARET WARNER: So if you go back, how will you support yourself?

SALMI SABAH KADIR (through interpreter): If we get back, I’m hopeful we can sort it out. If we get to go back, I’m hopeful we can live.

MARGARET WARNER: For now, the closest can get is within view to look yearningly at his village.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I spoke to Margaret a short time ago.

Margaret, thank you for talking with us. Now that we have heard President Obama say the Kurdish Peshmerga have retaken the Mosul dam, tell us about how hard a fight that was. Why so much confusion over who was in control?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, it’s a huge, a huge win for — it wasn’t just the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, but also the Iraqi military with the help of the United States, to retake this dam.

And I’m told one of the reasons for the confusion was that it really was back and forth. The U.S. airstrikes, there were some 15 just today around the dam, had to be very targeted, very pinpointed, because, of course, the risk was that this dam, which supplies so much water and electricity for all of Iraq along the Tigris River, could get destroyed by the fight over it.

There were also — there is also an ancillary dam. There was also the problem of the fact that the Islamic State fighters left behind land mines and booby traps. So, really, there have been conflicting reports for 48 hours, and claims that were not justified.

But it was all coordinated here in Irbil in this joint operation center set up by the United States, intelligence, special forces and so on, with both Kurdish military and Iraqi military. And it was U.S. intelligence and airstrikes that coordinated with fighters from both those other groups to take this dam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Margaret, we also — we heard in your report that the Kurds remain scared. How much are they counting on the U.S. to continue airstrikes, to continue other kinds of support?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

Judy, I have been amazed being here in Irbil, which feels safe to me compared to a place like Baghdad. A young doctor told me today, you should have been there three weeks ago. We were all scared to death. He said, thank God for American airstrikes.

The total message we have gotten from people is here, without the umbrella of American airstrikes and the continued threat of them — you know, there was one as recently as Friday night, and I’m told pretty reliably that that was on artillery positions that U.S. and Kurdish intelligence identified had the range to even hit here in Irbil, the strikes continue. And to people here, that means a lot.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how much more indication is there of what the U.S. is prepared to do militarily?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, that’s only known by the mind of President Obama. And both U.S. and Kurdish officials here say they really don’t know.

He’s made it clear, as he just said in his statement, that he wants to do more, that it’s not enough to have the Islamic State controlling one-third of Iraq, essentially, which they do now. The U.S. will, of course, continue to send humanitarian the effort, as he said.

But the U.S. is prepared to do more in the way of intelligence, in the way of furnishing weapons, if there can be a political agreement among the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds to work together, and not just politically, not just a nice photo-op politically, but working together militarily.

And I can tell you that is going to be very, very hard. The Sunnis aren’t united. We were on the front lines, as you saw in our piece, just yesterday, of Kurdish Peshmerga. They’re even divided into two different Peshmergas, depending on which political party they’re part of.

So there’s — even though there is a 30-day deadline on this, there is a long way to go before I think the president makes a decision on how much more aggressively he is going to commit U.S. firepower, airpower, military power to the effort.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner reporting for us from Irbil in Iraq, we thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, Judy, as always.