BASHEER, Iraq -- The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has taken over for the first time a Shiite town in Iraq. ISIS forces rolled into Basheer, just two miles (three kilometers) south of the city of Kirkuk at the center of an oil-field area, after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s forces bombed the area early Wednesday, forcing the Kurdish army to retreat.
Experts said at the beginning of the conflict last week that ISIS wouldn't be able to gain ground without the support of Sunni militants willing to help fight the Shiite-dominated Maliki government. Until now, the extremist group had only occupied Sunni majority territories. That theory no longer holds, though, as the group entered and took control of Basheer, a predominantly Shiite town.
According to peshmerga, or Kurdish army, fighters at a base in Kirkuk, the Iraqi military dropped bombs from aircraft on the town between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Wednesday. The peshmerga fled the city after two of their soldiers were killed, leaving it completely under ISIS control. Eight peshmerga soldiers were killed in the clashes with ISIS between Tuesday and Wednesday.
ISIS originally entered Basheer on Tuesday morning from the Baiji area, where it had been battling the Iraqi military for a week. On Wednesday, ISIS took the main oil refinery there.
The main road from Kirkuk to Basheer was empty on Wednesday. Peshmerga officers said they had blockaded the roads around the town, forbidding any cars from entering or exiting.
At a small outpost next to the entrance of the town, peshmerga and local security officers stood on a mound of sand overlooking the road, pointing their guns and threatening to shoot at cars that tried to pass by.
“If you had not said hello just now from a distance I would have shot you,” a peshmerga soldier told a reporter who had just arrived in a car. “And if ISIS sees you, they will kill you.”
With ISIS creeping closer to the center of Kirkuk, families in the villages around the peshmerga base began to pack up their belongings to flee to safer areas. But as the conflict creeps farther into Iraqi Kurdistan, locals are less confident that they will find safety. Erbil, about an hour’s drive away to the north, is the only safe haven for Iraqis and Kurds living on the border at this point, but most can't afford to stay in the city.
Several Iraqis from towns such as Diyala, one of the front lines between ISIS, the Iraqi military and the peshmerga, were waiting at the Kirkuk checkpoint Wednesday, returning to their homes because they said they could no longer stay in Erbil.
“We have to go home now,” one man said. “It is just getting too expensive.”
Cars lined up at the checkpoint, waiting to receive permission to pass. Several people were fighting about the price of taxi rides from the checkpoint across the border.
“These families are poor, why do you charge them so much?” one man yelled at a taxi driver.
Those people will return home likely to find deadly, random airstrikes by Maliki forces, which don't have advanced aircraft with precision weapons, as the government tries to crush ISIS. More bombings could take place, as the Iraqi government has formally asked the U.S. to assist in airstrikes on the Sunni militants. Despite this, Iraqis who had fled just days ago to the border region in Iraqi Kurdistan have have few options other than to return back to their homes, as ISIS continues to stretch the capabilities of the Kurdish and Iraqi armies.