After a week of fighting and conflicting accounts, militants with the Islamic State have reportedly captured Iraq's largest dam. The development spells significant danger for much of Iraq's civilian population. For more on the situation, Audie Cornish speaks with Alissa Rubin of The New York Times.
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Audie Cornish. Islamist militants have been gaining ground in northern Iraq causing panic and a looming humanitarian crisis. The militant group calling itself the Islamic State appears to have captured of Iraq's largest dam outside Mosul and has swept through northern towns causing a mass exodus. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish troops aligned with the Iraqi government, are battling the insurgents for control. Alissa Rubin of the New York Times is in northern Iraq in the city of Dahuk. She says the situation is disturbing.
ALISSA RUBIN: Many people in this part of Kurdistan are on the move. If you - I drove from Erbil today and there were just - almost constantly you're passing open pickup trucks filled with families and possessions, you know, in the blazing sun. They've just grabbed everything they could and all the - and, you know - and children and elderly - and are just driving. Sometimes it seems they don't even know where they're going. There are people who just stop on the side of the road and are sitting there - sitting, you know, in unfinished buildings for shelter. It's not clear that these people have any humanitarian aid.
CORNISH: One religious minority group or ethno-religious minority group we've heard about are the Aziris - thousands of people trapped on mountains to the west of Mosul. And I understand their situation is dire. What have you heard about relief or rescue for them?
RUBIN: Well, there have been airdrops to them by the Iraqi Army, but it's very difficult to do airdrops according to the UN. And there have been a number of mishaps. We heard some Aziri activists said some of the material and humanitarian assistance went into the Islamic State area rather than into a Aziri area. Some of it was dropped from too high up so the water bottles broke. So they weren't of much use.
CORNISH: This is an area of the country that had been defended by the Kurdish government - the semiautonomous Kurdish government and its forces. And initially, it was these fighters who were able to fend off the Islamic state militants back when the Iraqi government forces failed. What's happened the last few days?
RUBIN: Well, you know, it's very difficult to say what all the elements that are at work here, but there are several important ones. I mean, the Islamic State is - are quite good fighters. They've got very good weapons, and the Peshmerga who are here are - you know, have not fought a war in a long time. So one could argue that they're not particularly battle-hardened in the way that the Islamic State is. And then secondly, the Peshmerga don't have air support of any kind. The air support is with the Iraqi government in Baghdad. And now I think there is some air support coming, and that will help them a lot. And I think there's a fear factor. You know, the Islamic state is ruthless. And that has made people very afraid. And if they feel they are going to be overrun and then either killed or taken as prisoners of war and tortured, they're very likely to walk away rather than face that eventuality.
CORNISH: And another development here is the taking of the dam. This has obviously created a lot of worry for the Iraqi government for the Kurdish. Can you talk about what's at stake with the control of this dam?
RUBIN: Well, I mean, an enormous amount is at stake. The Mosul dam is probably, you know, the major, certainly, natural resource - strategic natural resource. And they have focused on getting control of dams and rivers which they can then use as either as leverage or as weapons. And I don't know how they would choose to use the Mosul dam. It would completely flood. Apparently you would get huge waves and it would flood a very large area of northern Iraq. So it's a very powerful tool for them and a big coup for them to have gotten it. Now, I do think that the Peshmerga will fight back on that. I don't think they're going to allow the dam to be held by ISIS, and I don't think the Iraqi army will either. But getting everyone in the position to do that is not easy.
CORNISH: Alissa Rubin of the New York Times, thanks so much.
RUBIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.