Hundreds of villagers fleeing advances by Sunni militants in Iraq crowded on Thursday under the morning sun at a checkpoint on the edge of the country’s Kurdish-controlled territory, trying to join large numbers of displaced who have already sought shelter in the relative safety of the largely autonomous region.
Many of those seeking shelter were Shiite Turkmen from villages outside Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul, overrun earlier this month by fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Sunni extremist group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
Also, a new insurgent artillery offensive against Christian villages in the north of Iraq on Wednesday sent thousands of Christians fleeing from their homes, seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish enclave.
The shelling of the cluster of villages happened in an area known as Hamdaniya, 45 miles (75 kilometers) from the frontier of the self-ruled Kurdish region.
While many villagers appeared to have been granted access by daybreak, hundreds of Shiite refugees were still hoping to be let in but were facing delays because they lacked sponsors on the other side.
One of the refugees, who gave only her nickname of Umm Alaa, fearing retribution, said she and hundreds of others with her had left their village of Quba and another nearby hamlet during the militants’ initial assault on June 10 to seek shelter in nearby communities that were then attacked on Wednesday.
Another, who agreed to be identified only named Huda, tried to calm her 10-year-old son Mohammed, who was crying of thirst.
“They will kill every Shiite man, and they will burn every Shiite house. Nobody has stayed in Quba. Every single Shiite has left,” he said, echoing the fears of many interviewed on Thursday.
Elsewhere, pro-government forces on Wednesday battled Sunni militants threatening a major military air base in Balad, north of Baghdad, military officials said.
The militants had advanced into the nearby town of Yathrib, just five kilometers (three miles) from the former US base known as Camp Anaconda. The officials insisted the base was not in immediate danger of falling into the hands of the militants.