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Islamic State makes new gains in Iraq

August 3, 2014 at 6:16 PM EDT
The Sunni insurgent group known as the Islamic State made new gains in Iraq Sunday, including seizing the northern Iraqi town of Wana near Mosul Dam, the largest dam in the country. For the latest, Nour Malas of the Wall Street Journal joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype from Baghdad.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the latest from Iraq we are joined now from Baghdad via Skype by Nour Malas of the Wall Street Journal. First of all how significant was the capture of these two towns?

NOUR MALAS: It’s quite significant because since the Islamic state started its offensive in the north in June, this is the first time they’ve been able to seize any significant territory from Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. The situation is still fluid up there but they seized these towns and two small oil fields in one of them and in the other they are displacing hundreds of people particularly from the Yazidi religious ethno community. So there is a budding humanitarian crisis there, and it also calls into question the strength of Peshmerga forces which really have been one of the first lines of defense in Iraq against the insurgence.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We’ve also heard that there might have been a dam that was taken over. Is there a consequence to that?

NOUR MALAS: Absolutely that situation is also very fluid, it’s not clear at all that the Islamic state has actually taken over Mosul dam which is the country largest. We’ve spoken to some people that say Peshmerga fighters are still in control of it but the consequences would be huge for that, you know cities could flood it may even affect power supplies. We’ve seen the struggle for resources and infrastructure like electricity and power play out between rebels and the regime in Syria as well and over there the Islamic state has been pretty successful in doing that so definitely that’s a key area of concern here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Earlier this week we saw stories coming out of Mosul a city that ISIS now controls where Christians were pushing back because of the destruction or a series of destruction of shrines.

NOUR MALAS: Well unfortunately they are not pushing back as much as they just fleeing, fleeing the province and in many cases fleeing Iraq all together if they can. The direction of religious shrines that are sacred not just to Christians but to Muslims of all sects too has really started a sort of localized a mini rebellion against the Islamic state in Mosul and it’s become now a test ground for whether local residence are going to start a backlash against these insurgents because they’re touching parts of their territory and history that are so sacred and shared by all sects here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What shrines have been destroyed?

NOUR MALAS: There was a major mosque and shrine set to contain the tomb of Jonah a prophet important to all religions. They wired the periphery of that and blew it up last week they’ve also attacked Shiite religious shrines and in this latest offense in the northwest we’re seeing them attack Yazidi shrines. So they’re really on an all-out culture offense here that’s really starting to electrify Iraqi residence of the north. No matter how they actually feel about the military side of things they feel this is just an unacceptable encroachment on their history and their shared heritage.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s the Iraqi government response to all this. Have they just been letting this happen?

NOUR MALAS: Absolutely not they have launched a wide scale military offensive at least around Tikrit to push back the Islamic state there. They’re using aerial bombardment. In some cases they’re sort of counting on this local backlash hoping that Islamic State can’t really plant roots and that local residents are going to start to turn against them including tribesmen that sort of thing local forces. In the meantime Iraqi forces are trying to regroup and strengthen their focus on holding key cities and making sure that the insurgents don’t push southward towards Baghdad the capital.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nour Malas of the Wall Street Journal joining us via Skype from Baghdad thanks so much.

NOUR MALAS: Thank you.