Kirkuk: Kasra Hussein Hassan weeps openly as she recounts her son’s death just two days ago, when 12-year-old Mohamed Ibrahim fell victim to the Iraqi Army airstrikes on the northern town of Tikrit.
“There was indiscriminate bombardment from the army on the streets and his brother ran away – he ran after his brother and he was killed,” the 52-year-old mother of six said, reliving a trauma still all too fresh in her mind.
Kasra Hussein Hassan, 52, mourns her son who was killed on Saturday when the Iraqi government bombarded Tikrit. Photo: Andrew Quilty / Oculi for The Sydney Morning Herald
She was speaking from the relative safety of Kirkuk, 120 kilometres north-east of Tikrit, where her whole family fled on Saturday along with many other civilians, terrified by the growing sectarian conflict that is engulfing their country and prompting a US embassy evacuation in Baghdad.
Like so many caught between the alarming advance of Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant through the north and the seemingly unco-ordinated government airstrikes designed to wrest back control from the insurgents, Kasra was left in an impossible position.
“Our treatment under [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki was bad but then the ISIL came and they were worse,” she says.
Soldiers of the Kurdish Peshmerga guard a highway adjacent to the Kirkuk Airport. Photo: Andrew Quilty / Oculi for The Sydney Morning Herald
The Sunni militant group has called on police, soldiers and other “non-believers” to repent, setting up computer lists of men expected to express remorse for their actions under the imminent threat of violence or death.
“My whole family is in the military,” Kasra says. “That is when we decided to leave.”
Iraqis speak with weary familiarity about the human cost of the government air strikes, designed to attack insurgent positions but so often claiming other victims in their wake.
Iraqis parked by the side of the highway after crossing a checkpoint south of Kirkuk into the Kurdish Peshmerga-controlled zone. Photo: Andrew Quilty / Oculi for the Sydney Morning Herald
At one of Kirkuk’s southern checkpoints – now under the control of Kurdish Peshmerga forces – hundreds of Iraqis from Tikrit gathered after making the late-night, last-minute decision to flee their homes.
One extended family of 71 piled their trucks high with blankets, water containers and other belongings and headed for Kirkuk.
“The bombardment from the Iraqi air strikes has been continuous,” said 30-year-old Amr Abdullah from the village of al-Owja in Tikrit, the birthplace of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraqis - predominantly from Tikrit - parked by the side of the highway after crossing a checkpoint south of Kirkuk into the Kurdish Peshmerga-controlled zone after fleeing Iraqi areas overrun by jihadists from ISIL. Photo: Andrew Quilty / Oculi
“We have not got any food at all and we didn’t bring enough mattresses, but we had to leave, we had no choice,” he said.
Another Tikriti who declined to give his name said residents were forced to leave because the local municipality was no longer providing essential services such as water, electricity and garbage collection.
“The only place that is operating is the hospital,” he said.
When you add the apparently indiscriminate air strikes from the Iraqi forces described by every family Fairfax Media interviewed, the situation is untenable, he said.
None seemed to be aware of the reports emerging from Tikrit of the possible massacre of Shiite soldiers in the Iraqi Army by the Sunni militants, filmed and tweeted by the insurgents themselves.
Initially claiming on Saturday that it had executed 1700 Shiite soldiers, ISIL posted horrific, gruesome images of dozens of men being moved via truck to a remote field and forced to lie face down on the ground, where militants lined up and executed them with automatic weapons. The next frame shows a pile of lifeless bodies, each photograph accompanied by a triumphant captions such as “the filthy Shiites are killed in the hundreds”.
But while none of the civilians fleeing Tikrit knew about the reported massacre, soldiers at the checkpoint admitted they had heard rumours.
“They have no mercy for soldiers,” said staff sergeant Ahmad Hassib, who also mentioned the “repent notices” issued by ISIL to members of the Iraqi Armed Forces.
Elsewhere in Iraq there was a steady flow of civilians fleeing contested areas such as Mosul, the country’s second largest city and the first to fall into the hands of the militants at the start of their campaign last Tuesday.
Hundreds of cars full of people arrived in the Kurdish city of Dohuk on Sunday seeking a safe haven, said Karl Schembri, the Middle East regional media manager for Save the Children.
“People are telling us they are caught between the two sides,” Mr Schembri says.
“Some in Dohuk didn’t even have time to bring money so they are living in rented flats paid for by their relatives – those are the lucky ones and they admit if it were not for their relatives they would be out on the streets.”
The speed and size of the displacement is unprecedented in recent history, he says, with the initial estimates of 500,000 displaced now looking conservative.
“The real number could be in the region of one million, we just don’t know yet.”
Describing the situation in Iraq as a human catastrophe, Mr Schembri says it comes on top of all the other movements of displaced people across the region – internally from Anbar and externally from Syria.
“The international community needs to step up its funding to help this region and to help us keep up with the influx of people.”
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that ISIL fighters and other armed Sunni Muslim groups have stormed several towns on the road to Baghdad, although their offensive appeared to have stalled as it approached the mainly Shi'ite capital.
In Baghdad on Sunday, a suicide bomber killed at least nine people and wounded 20 in a crowded street in the centre of the capital, police and medical sources told Reuters.
And at least six people were killed as volunteers gathered at a recruitment centre in Khlais, about 50 kilometres north of Baghdad, waiting to join the army to help fight back against the ISIL sweep through the towns of northern Iraq and defend the capital.