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Iraqi Shiite leader calls for working government as ISIL advances toward Baghdad

June 20, 2014 at 6:09 PM EST
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Note: This video has been edited due to web restrictions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Iraq today, government troops were poised to take the fight north to Sunni extremists, while the spiritual leader of the country’s Shiite majority called for a new working government.

Sectarian division has so far prevented the political party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from claiming its seats in parliament. But Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s most influential Shiite cleric, urged the newly elected body to convene quickly and choose a speaker and president.

A representative read Sistani’s sermon in Karbala.

AHMED AL-SAFI, Representative for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (through interpreter): It is also important that winning blocs open dialogue to help form an effective government largely acceptable to all, in order to surmount past mistakes and open new horizons for a better future to all Iraqis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in the United States, the Pentagon said it expects Iraq to agree to legal protections for the incoming group of U.S. military advisers. American forces left the country in 2011 after the Iraqi government refused to grant U.S. service members legal immunity.

Hundreds of miles north of Baghdad in the ISIL-controlled city of Mosul, there are signs that once-fearful residents are beginning to return home to try life under the militant group’s rule.

We have a report from Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News, who is just outside the city.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: It is perched precariously and it is precarious in more ways than one, the Monastery of St. Matthew, 1,600 years old, its cloisters still echoing with Aramaic, the language of Christ himself, but a sanctuary for months now shelters 50 Christian families after their city, Mosul, was conquered by Islamic extremists last week.

“They tell us to trust us,” this woman told me. “They tell us they won’t hurt us, but we’re not going back because we don’t trust them.”

Her husband was killed by jihadists in Mosul two years ago. Now ISIS is in charge, they fear they will be branded as heretics and executed.

FATHER YOUSID BANNA, Mosul Priest: So what you hear that if you stay in Mosul, you will have a lot of problems, your churches will be destroyed, so they are afraid and they left Mosul. Most of the families, especially the Christian, left Mosul.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: This was as close to Iraq’s second city as we dared go, a checkpoint manned by Kurdish fighters patrolling the border of a vast new self-declared Islamic state.

And to our surprise, a queue to get in — Iraq’s government is apparently so hated by so many here that even some Christians are giving the ISIS alternative a chance.

MAN: We don’t think worse happened to the church, our homes. As a Christian, there is nothing, you know?

JONATHAN RUGMAN: So you as a Christian are not worried about these…

MAN: No.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: You’re not?

MAN: I think it’s OK.

“We’re not afraid. They’re doing nothing to civilians,” said this man.

“If you leave your car somewhere, it will be safe and nobody will steal it,” says another.

ISIS seems to be trying to win hearts and minds in Mosul, and here, we’re just a few hundred meters from the ISIS front line. But nobody knows how long the group’s restraint will last, given that it has boasted about executing prisoners south of here.

But these are the scarred remains of the army, which beat a rapid retreat from Mosul last week. Many soldiers deserted. This dejected handful didn’t, though one admitted to us there wasn’t much hope of getting the city back.

And that forces the two million people of Mosul to choose whether to stay or to go. Hundreds of thousands have fled from ISIS, those without money or relatives living in camps in unbearable heat, a dwindling number of Christians either clinging on in their ancient homeland or heading for the hills to pray.