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Islamic State Bolsters Its Control Over Northwestern Iraq


In Iraq, more gains for the Sunni extremists who call themselves the Islamic State. They have seized several more towns in the north, forcing Kurdish fighters defending the area to retreat. And they've been trying to wrest control of Iraq's biggest hydroelectric dam north of Mosul. Reporter Jane Arraf has been following the situation from Baghdad and says so far, that prize has eluded the militants.

JANE ARRAF: Well, there was really fierce fighting, Melissa, around the dam. And certainly, Islamic State fighters have taken a lot of the territory around it. But, by all accounts, the dam is still in the hands of the Peshmerga, Kurdish forces. It would, of course, be catastrophic if the Islamic State took over that part of Iraq's infrastructure. But from everything we're hearing, they have not.

BLOCK: Now, Jane, when you say it would be catastrophic if the Mosul Dam were to fall into the hands of the Islamic State - what would the implications of that be if that were to happen?

ARRAF: Well, it's believed to be not so much that they would open the floodgates and actually flood half of the country because, of course, by opening the Mosul Dam gates, the first thing that would flood would be Mosul which is where the Islamic State has set up the capital of its self-declared Islamic State. But what it would do is allow it to control electricity generation. That's one of the key reasons that it wants that dam because Mosul really is suffering quite a lot because the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces have basically cut it off from electricity and even clean water. And there's an impending crises there, according to a lot of people.

BLOCK: If it did appear that the Mosul Dam were about to fall into the hands of the extremists, the Islamic state, would that be a case where the United States possibly would intervene with airstrikes?

ARRAF: I think that would be a really tough call, Melissa, because so far, they have been refraining from intervening in a very direct way because there's no government here, really. They don't want to be seen as propping up a Shia-led caretaker government if the Iraqi government itself can't even get its own act together. But if, as you say, the Mosul Dam, one of the key pieces of infrastructure, the biggest dam in the country, were at threat, one would have to think that there would be a case to be made - a strong case for stronger U.S. military reaction than we've seen so far.

BLOCK: Jane, what are you hearing about the towns that the Islamic State has most recently seized in the north of the country? What's going on there?

ARRAF: Well, it's just the latest tragedy, Melissa. I spoke to one of the elders of a very ancient and a very small community, the Yazidis, who made up the majority of the town of Sinjar that is close to the Mosul Dam and on the base of Sinjar Mountain. Now, when the Islamic Army came in - and the Peshmerga couldn't hold them off - the Kurdish fighters couldn't hold the line, the Yazidis took to the mountains. And now this evening, there are thousands of people, families, on the mountain with no shelter, with no food, no water and very little way to get aid to them.

BLOCK: Have they also reported that there have been executions at the hands of the Islamic state of the Yazidi people?

ARRAF: They have. Those figures are difficult to pin down, but one of the elders I spoke with said that two of his own relatives had been executed. He said this is after several hundred people, according to him, had been kidnapped by Islamic State fighters and then executed when they refused to converge. Now, the Yazidi, like any minority religion in particular, clings very closely to its faith, but the Yazidi, in particular - it's a closed religion, meaning you can't marry into it. Everything is handed down, basically, if they convert. They believe that they're spiritually dead. These are not people who are going to convert. So according to the elders of the community, hundreds of them have died.

BLOCK: That's reporter Jane Arraf, speaking with us from Baghdad. Jane, thank you.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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