Jihadis were firmly in control of Iraq’s Mosul on Wednesday, patrolling the streets and calling for employees to return to work a day after seizing the northern city, witnesses said, as an estimated 500,000 residents fled the city.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) overran Mosul and a string of northern towns on Tuesday, in a major blow to the Iraqi government that the United States warned threatens the entire region.
The ISIS militants have also advanced into the oil refinery town of Baiji, setting the court house and police station on fire, security sources said on Wednesday.
They said around 250 guards at the refinery had agreed to withdraw to another town after the militants sent a delegation of local tribal chiefs to persuade them to pull out.
Baiji resident Jasim al-Qaisi, said the militants also warned local police and soldiers not to challenge them.
“Yesterday at sunset some gunmen contacted the most prominent tribal sheikhs in Baiji via cellphone and told them: ‘We are coming to die or control Baiji, so we advise you to ask your sons in the police and army to lay down their weapons and withdraw before (Tuesday) evening prayer’.”
Militants entered Baiji later on Tuesday evening in around 60 vehicles, releasing prisoners in the town.
Baiji refinery is Iraq’s biggest, supplying oil products to most of the country’s provinces. A worker there said the morning shift had not been allowed to take over and the night shift was still working.
In Mosul, gunmen, some in military uniforms and others wearing black, stood guard at government buildings and banks, said witnesses reached by telephone from Bashiqa, a town east of Mosul.
They called over loudspeakers for government employees to go back to work.
Some 500,000 Iraqis have fled their homes in Mosul, fearing increased violence, the International Organization for Migration said Wednesday.
The Geneva-based organization said its sources on the ground estimated the violence leading up to the ISIS’s total takeover on Tuesday “displaced over 500,000 people in and around the city.”
Hassan al-Juburi, 45, said the militants had set the punishment at 80 lashes for residents who use the abbreviation “ISIS.”
“I did not open the door of the shop since last Thursday because of the security conditions,” said Abu Ahmad, a 30-year-old shop-owner.
Witnesses reported that dozens of families continued to flee the city, but Ahmad said: “I will remain in Mosul. This is my city in any case, and the city is calm now.”
Bassam Mohammed, a 25-year-old university student, also said he would stay in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which normally has a population of around two million people.
“But I am afraid about freedoms, and I am especially afraid that they will impose new laws on us,” Mohammed said.
Jihadis on Tuesday seized all of Mosul and Nineveh province, long a militant stronghold and one of the most dangerous areas in the country, and also took areas in Kirkuk province, to its east, and Salaheddin to the south.
ISIS said it was behind operations in Nineveh in a series of messages on Twitter, while officials have also blamed the jihadi group for the unrest.
But it is possible that other militant groups have been involved as well.
Bloodshed is running at its highest levels in Iraq since 2006-2007, when tens of thousands were killed in clashes.