TUZ KHURMA, Iraq -- In a small shop off the main road between Tuz Khurma and Tikrit on Sunday, two teenage boys watch clips from the World Cup on an old, broken television set held up by a pile of black milk crates. They’re from the neighborhood, and make a living selling water to passersby. They sit cross-legged, cheering as replays from the previous day’s matches flash across the screen. Like the rest of the world, they are glued to the soccer tournament -- but unlike the rest of the world, they are in territory controlled by the most feared terrorist group on earth: ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The shop sits just inside ISIS territory, past a checkpoint manned by the Kurdish military, also known as the pesh merga.
Just behind the television, outside the shop, a burned Iraqi military truck sits on the side of the road, a constant reminder that this chunk of Iraq has a new master, one that’s on the march towards the capital itself. Reports of the group attacking inside Baghdad, about 200 km (120 miles) to the south, surfaced Sunday night. ISIS is waging a campaign to establish a Sunni Islamic caliphate by taking control of as much land as possible, in Iraq and Syria.
Many Sunnis in the area said they would rather have ISIS rule their territory than the government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia who has antagonized the Sunni minority for years. Still, the ISIS advance -- preceded by reports of its atrocities and by its fame as a terror group so extreme that even al Qaeda took its distance from it -- has caused thousands to flee.
Walking from the shop down the road toward Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, ISIS militiamen could be seen patrolling and flying a black flag, the group’s emblem. They did not have to fight the Iraqi military to take this area, said the boys, both Sunni. The soldiers abandoned their posts and ran.
With ISIS so close, no one comes down this road, the boys said. The ISIS base is less than a mile away, and people fear clashes with the military or the Kurdish militia. The other fear is that the group’s brutal tactics, which have been documented by media outlets several times over the last week, could spread from Iraqi soldiers to the civilian population.
The militant group posted photos on Twitter Sunday that showed its fighters shooting dead dozens of Iraqi soldiers, here in Salahuddin Province. The group claimed it had killed 1,700 soldiers. These reports could not be independently confirmed.
But officers from the 16th brigade, 2nd battalion of the pesh merga, at a compound between Tuz Khurma and semi-independent Kurdistan, said they received reports that “hundreds” of Iraqi soldiers had been kidnapped in the area and killed by ISIS.
“They just took them all after they abandoned their positions and killed them all,” the commander, who would not give his name for security reasons, said. “They come here and we will be ready to fight.”
The Maliki government’s failure to include all Iraqis is evident in the story of the battalion’s soldiers, Kurds who said they had deserted from the Iraqi army last year to join the Kurdish militia. According to several of them, Maliki did not promote any Kurdish soldiers in the military, and had never wanted them serving in the first place.
“So, we just disobeyed him and left,” one of them said. “He gave us no choice. We are Kurds and will protect Kurdistan with all of our soul.”
On the top of their compound, soldiers from the battalion pointed in the distance, less than a half mile away, to a black flag waving on top of a crumbling building.
“There they are,” the commander said. “Look how close.” If ISIS attacked, the pesh merga said they would defend themselves, but hadn’t yet determined how, nor trained for it.
The compound’s checkpoint is the first one completely outside of ISIS territory. On Sunday, the soldiers were busier than usual, checking the massive number of cars trying to pass through to reach safety inside Kurdistan.
“There are airstrikes happening in our village,” said a man driving a truck stacked high with watermelons and with seven other people, including women and a newborn, in it. They said they were fleeing clashes in Awzeim, a small village on the way to Baghdad.
People in another car confirmed the attack and said the airstrikes were coupled with gunfight between Iraqi forces and ISIS.
The border crossing into Kurdistan here will likely fill up with even more cars, as reports surfaced Sunday of ISIS infiltrating the capital and several bombs going off in the city, killing and injuring dozens.
The U.S. ordered most of its embassy staff to evacuate Baghdad. Some of the personnel are expected to make their way to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, on Monday, and they too will pass through here, on the Tuz Khurma main road.