You can see the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions from a Kurdish-held checkpoint on the Erbil to Mosul road. They're about 500 yards away in a recently vacated Iraqi Army post.
ISIS, the Sunni Muslim militant group so extreme that even al Qaeda disowned them, has a deservedly nasty reputation. In Syria, the group’s other main area of operations, its members are accused of countless atrocities — from murder, to amputations, torture and abduction — and have clashed with Syrian rebel groups and regime forces alike.
In Iraq, the group captured Mosul from government forces on Tuesday as part of a lightning advance across the country, and deployed some of its men to their current location across from the Kurdish checkpoint.
The Kurdish Peshmerga troops, however, didn’t seem too concerned. They are well equipped, with armored vehicles, heavy machine guns and RPGs, and they keep a close watch on the ISIS positions. But they were relaxed.
Some had removed the armor panels in their flak jackets as a concession to the blasting heat. Others lounged at their posts. One nonchalantly sipped from a juice box and gazed into the distance as he stood on duty.
Colonel Mahmoud Ahmed Hussein, who heads the Kurdish forces on this front, told VICE News that his group had “increased their numbers and readiness,” but still wasn’t in a state of high alert.
Hussein didn’t expect an attack. ISIS, he said, had no quarrel with the Kurds.
“Personally, I think they don’t have a problem with us, they just want independence from [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki.” He added that the Islamic militants had even asked the hundreds of thousands who fled when they took Mosul to return to their homes. “It seems to be very normal there now, they rule, but there is no killing.”
It is not the behavior that most have come to expect from ISIS, but it seems to be a sign of the pragmatic approach it is taking in Mosul.
An approach which has resulted in relative calm between the city and Erbil and allowed it to continue to push forward towards the capital of Baghdad at a speed which is alarming Maliki and his allies.
Traffic is moving relatively freely along the Erbil-Mosul road, freely crossing where neither Kurdish nor ISIS men can. More cars are leaving Mosul than going there and some, the ones stacked with mattresses and electrical goods obviously contain people fleeing Mosul, but there is a steady flow both ways.
Ali, a healthcare worker, told VICE News that he was traveling from Mosul to Erbil to help his friend buy a car. He said the situation in Mosul was calm and that ISIS had gotten public services running again. “Tomorrow we will all be back to work, god willing… ISIS has the city working again and the days are quiet; no killing, no bullets, no bombings.”
Mosul is home to a large number of Iraq’s sizeable Sunni minority population. Many of them feel victimized by Maliki’s Shiite government and what they see as the prime minister's authoritarian and sectarian tendencies. As result, ISIS seems to have found itself with a base of support in the city.
Sahib, 60, who was also traveling to Erbil, denied that ISIS was even in Mosul. The militants, he told VICE News, were part of a Shiite uprising.
“Iraqi people are ruling this city, they made Maliki’s army pull out… so I’m happy that they’re ruling us,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t seen any foreigners, just Iraqis. This was an uprising against the tyranny of the president… People were so fed up with him that they couldn’t hold it anymore.”
Not all of Mosul’s newly ex-residents feel the same. At a recently established camp outside Erbil for people fleeing the fighting in Mosul, Mohammed, 38, who spoke with VICE News as two small children hid behind him and tugged at his thawb, said ISIS were terrorists.
“I fled as there was no rule of law. They can do anything there… I think these guys are terrorists because all the want is to get power based on violence,” he said.
Abdul, 50, who also left the city, interjected.
“If they aim to liberate, why do they steal? The first thing they do is rob banks,” he said referring to the $429 million the group looted from Mosul's Central Bank. Abdul said he left the city as soon as he heard it was under ISIS control.
He added, however, that he also didn’t expect the group to cause many problems for most of Mosul’s remaining population or anyone who chose to go back: “They won’t target normal people… just those who make trouble."