With the fall of Iraq’s second largest city in mid-June to Sunni extremists, the country plunged into shocking sectarian violence once again. Now, jihadist fighters aligned with the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham control numerous Iraqi cities and are pushing south toward the capital with the aim of creating their own Islamic caliphate in the region.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been uprooted after fleeing the Sunni militants and Iraqi airstrikes. Survivors speak of mass graves and corpses hanging in homes. ISIS’s targets are often Shiites and other minority religious and ethnic groups, who the militants deem heretical.
While many Iraqis consider ISIS to be a terrorist group, some Sunnis say they prefer militant rule to that of the Shiite Iraqi government, which they view as sectarian and violent. In Baghdad, there are now near daily killings of Sunnis by Shiite militias. Their bodies in the morgues often bear marks of torture.
Meanwhile, the Kurds, who have long dreamed of their own fully independent Kurdish state, are finding they now have more land and power after many Iraqi forces fled their posts in the face of ISIS.
Iraq, with its prominent Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations, is looking more and more like a country split into three.
I spent time over the past two weeks documenting my experience with refugees and fighters alike on Instagram.
Here, around 500 people out of half a million who fled ISIS-controlled Mosul are living at a small camp for displaced Iraqis near the northern city of Erbil. The camp residents said that those with money fled Mosul to nearby cities instead of the makeshift camp.
Iraqi army and police uniforms are strewn on the ground outside of Mosul on June 13. They stripped, changed and then fled the area when they heard Sunni extremists were attacking, eyewitnesses said.
Rows of fabric in a small fabric shop in Erbil, a northern city in Iraqi Kurdistan. The owner of the shop said earlier this month that nobody is buying his product now because they’re saving money to prepare for a potentially long, bloody conflict.
A key rack in a hotel in Erbil, northern Iraq. On June 14, the hotel was nearly full of Iraqi police and soldiers who fled Mosul when ISIS attacked. Other cheap hotels were filled with families.
Dozens of Iraqis line up outside of an Iraqi Airways office in Erbil on June 14. Many are waiting to get tickets to Baghdad — either to help defend the city from Sunni extremists or to join their families in a city that could soon be under attack. There weren’t enough flights, they said, and the roads were either blocked or too dangerous.
A grand mosque in Erbil, a northern city in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Extravagant wedding dresses hang in a shop in a Syrian refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, about a 45-minute drive from Mosul. At least several young Syrians get married every week, a woman who works at the dress shop said recently.
Heavily armed Kurdish fighters — known as Peshmerga — drive in a military convoy near Kirkuk, a city they now entirely control after Iraqi forces fled in the face of ISIS.
Kurdish fighters stand at their base in Top Zawa, Iraq, on June 17. A military base controlled by Sunni extremists is less than one mile away.
Smoke rises from clashes on June 18 between Sunni extremists and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Bashir, a tiny village about 15 miles from Kirkuk, Iraq.
Hussein Khalil and his family, all Shiites, fled the village of Bashir in mid-June after Sunni militants killed more than a dozen people. According to Khalil, the fighters hung some of the corpses of those they killed in their own homes.
A checkpoint leading to Bartella, a northern Iraqi town near Sunni extremist-controlled Mosul. While many families in the town, which has a heavy Christian community, are packing up and leaving, others say their faith gives them the courage to stay.