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Residents of Iraqi Kurdistan flee for safety as panic consumes region

August 9, 2014 at 6:02 PM EDT
As the Islamic State Group moves even closer to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, residents of the Kurdish region are fleeing in droves to safer areas, as a state of panic consumes the region. Nour Malas of the Wall Street Journal joins Hari Sreenivasan.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: For more about the situation on the ground in Iraq we’re joined once again tonight by Nour Malas of the Wall Street Journal. She joins us via Skype from Erbil.

So in the past week we saw this massive assault by the Islamic State Group, they took over three towns and just in the last 24-48 hours, they took over another. What’s the latest that we know about how they’re advancing?

NOUR MALAS: They’ve moved even closer over the past few days to Erbil, which is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and that’s really what sent officials here, residents of the Kurdish region into a panic and prompted, ultimately, U.S. intervention.

There’s a large American consulate presence here, there’s thousands of U.S. citizens and on the Iraqi side there are thousands of Yazidis from a religious minority stranded on a mountainside that maybe the Iraqi government hasn’t been able to help with, so this has pulled some U.S. involvement into Iraq.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You got there right before the U.S. airstrikes happened. What was the aftermath? What were the consequences?

NOUR MALAS: When I got here people were in a panic, booking flights out, afraid of an Islamic state encroachment on the capital. It’s not clear that these are actually the goals of these militants.

They’re definitely making a push all the way across the Iraqi-Kurdish border which is some 620 miles. They’re trying to consolidate the areas and the towns that they’ve taken moving up to the border. But just getting close enough to Erbil has sent so many people into a panic already.

U.S. airstrikes that started on Thursday appear to have calmed things down. People feel more comfortable that there’s precision and targeted strikes to try to push back some of these insurgent positions though it’s not clear yet exactly what effect they’ve had.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what’s life like in the capital? What are you seeing today?

NOUR MALAS: Erbil is relatively normal and calm, it’s tense. The Peshmerga which are Kurdish forces have spread out on roads leading in and out of Erbil. There’s heavy police and security presence.

There’s a bit of suspicion with non- Kurds, so Kurdish officials and Peshmerga officials are tense about the thousands of Sunni, non-Kurdish Iraqis flooding into their territory from elsewhere. Some people fear that you know this could be infiltrated by the Islamic state.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And lets shift gears to what’s happening on that mountain mountain in Sinjar what’s the latest on the humanitarian airdrops?

NOUR MALAS: There was a small breakthrough with an evacuation, actually. The U.S. has now conducted two airdrops the last one was early this morning. They’ve been able to reach I think something like 10,000 or maybe a little bit more than that (people). There’s about 40,000 Yazidis stranded on the mountainside so many more are in need.

The U.N. is talking about trying to help carve a humanitarian corridor as well but all this speaks to how truly stranded they are and how terrible their conditions are. I was able to meet with a dozen families up in Dohuk Province, who had fled Sinjar and all of them really recounted the same tales of fleeing in the middle of the night, grabbing whatever in most cases that’s just their kids.

A lot of them didn’t have cars or the roads were too jammed with cars and they had to just walk for hours, sometimes days to get to relative safety, and even here in Iraqi Kurdistan they’re just consumed with worry and news from hundreds of their relatives stranded on the mountainside.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what’s travel like inside Iraq now? Last time we spoke with you you were in a different city did you have to take extra precautions?

NOUR MALAS: I actually took a flight over here right in time before a bunch of international airlines canceled flights to Erbil. Some of them since them have reinstated them.

It’s a move basically to gauge what airspace security is going to be like and also just figure things out until it becomes clear how long U.S. airstrike operations are going to be.

The roads are not safe, although the highways leading to major cities are. Anything leading to Mosul or offshoots, you’re bound to run the risk of running into some sort of insurgent presence. So there’s a fear that the road travel option is not going to be safe for much longer.

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

NOUR MALAS: Thank you.