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Refugees From Mosul Wonder When To Go Back

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on June 11.
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on June 11.
Aliya Muhammad says she and her family fled Mosul to save their lives when the Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) routed the Iraqi Army in three days of fighting on June 6-9.

Now she and other refugees who have flooded into Irbil, the closest town in the stable Kurdish self-rule region, wonder when they can return home.

"The situation [in Mosul] is very, very bad," she told Reuters on June 12 in Irbil. "We couldn't sleep at night. All night long, we heard gunshots, mortar shells, and airplanes flying over. We couldn't sleep. The power went off and there was no water, so we fled Mosul."

Some of the refugees say they will never return because of the atrocities they say they witnessed during the attack.

One man, who gave his name to reporters only as Abu Mustafa, says the militants killed his son-in-law. He told the British daily "The Telegraph" on June 11 that on the road out of Mosul he saw the bodies of dozens of people killed by the militants.

But other refugees say they saw no violence by the ISIL toward civilians and are thinking of returning home.

One man, who gave his name as Abu Jamila, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on July 12 that he only fled because Mosul has no water or electricity. "Nothing is happening [in Mosul] and the situation there is calm, the problem is lack of services," he said. "I came to Irbil because of the services, otherwise I would not have come. [ISIL] people are in the streets and when we came they were deployed along the entire road politely waving us on. I am saying this with God as my witness, we saw nothing bad from them."

WATCH: Hundreds of families continued to flee fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul and seek shelter in the Kurdish city of Irbil after Islamist militants took control of Iraq's second-largest city.
Families Continue To Flee Fighting In Iraq's Mosul
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The refugees say they are staying in close touch with friends who stayed in Mosul as they try to judge what to do next.

Shari'a Law

So far, the ISIL has shown no signs of preparing to leave. Instead it has begun speaking publicly about appointing a new local government for Nineveh Province, whose capital is Mosul, and issuing harsh rules for residents, including an injunction that women should only go outside "if necessary."

One of the names the ISIL has proposed for governor is Hashim Aljmas, a former officer in the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein.

People in Mosul say the ISIL has sought to win public trust by casting its assault as an operation to liberate the majority Sunni city from the Shi'ite-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

One citizen in Mosul told RFE/RL privately on June 12 that he welcomed the Iraqi Army's rout after what he said was years of repression of the Sunni population by government forces.

"We suffered a decade of raids, killings, displacement, and bombardment," he said. "Now, members of the Iraqi Army have decided to withdraw from the province to let the people live in freedom, while the newcomers, through loudspeakers in the mosques, have told the people that they do not want anything but for everyone to live his life, and that they will provide services."

Many Sunnis in Iraq accuse the Maliki government of treating them like second-class citizens, including targeting young Sunnis for mass arrests during counterterror sweeps. Residents of Mosul had frequently complained that Iraqi security forces maintained excessive numbers of security roadblocks and checkpoints in the city, hindering freedom of movement.

What Next?

Still, the question for anyone who now contemplates a return is how long the calm that seems to have returned to the city will last.

There are two factors which could disturb it drastically.

One is a promised effort by the government to take Mosul back from the ISIL. Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said on June 11 that Baghdad will cooperate with Kurdish forces to drive out the militants.

The other unknown is the ISIL itself.

The organization, led by an Iraqi Sunni, seized Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in January in the wake of a violent government crackdown on Sunni protest camps, positioning itself as the leader of armed Sunni resistance to Baghdad. But it has a wider agenda of establishing an Islamist caliphate in Iraq and the Levant based on its own extreme interpretation of Shari'a, or Islamic religious law.
READ MORE: Iraq And Syria: Past, Present, And (Hypothetical) Future Maps

The ISIL also has a reputation for extreme brutality against opponents, including summary execution of non-Sunni Muslims. How long it will continue reassuring people in Mosul that it represents no danger to them, and that it will not harm Shi'ite residents, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the influx of refugees into the region around Irbil is straining to the limit relief agencies' capacities to help them.

Catherine Robinson, public information officer at the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), says many people arrived only with what they could carry. "On Tuesday [June 10] we saw literally tens of thousands of people coming across and [on June 11] that number was a little bit lower," she told RFE/RL from Irbil.

"And [as of June 12] we really think the influx is over. We think the people that wanted to leave Mosul have left. And we have now in tandem with the government set up a transit camp at that checkpoint for people who don't have relatives in Irbil to come and live with, or don't have the money to stay in hotels."

Robinson said she expected the need for shelter will only grow in coming days as people who have taken temporary shelter with relatives seek more permanent accommodation. "The government is planning for that now, to set up a camp so that people have somewhere to go," she said.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondent Abdu Hameed Zebari in Irbil contributed to this report