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Fargo-Moorhead Iraqis try to reach family as violence rips their country apart

Salman Hasan speaks through a translator about how he served in the Kurdish armed forces for years before coming to America in 1992. David Samson / The Forum1 / 4
Jihan Mohammed talks about the struggles of her Kurdish family members, some of whom have been unable to collect paychecks and pensions from their government for months. David Samson / The Forum2 / 4
Amar Hussein, seen here Wednesday, June 18, 2014, is the supervisor of interpreters at Lutheran Social Services in Fargo, N.D. The Tikrit, Iraq, native moved to the United States with his family in 2007 for a safer life with better opportunity. Nick Wagner / The Forum3 / 4
Marewin Shaikhan discusses life in his hometown of Kirkuk, Iraq, which was recently captured by Kurdish forces. David Samson / The Forum4 / 4

FARGO – As sectarian violence rocked his homeland this week, Amar Hussein visited a local store in search of a prepaid phone card to call his family in Iraq.

All the cards were sold out.

With fighting between Sunni Muslim insurgents and the Shiite Muslim government in Iraq coming to a head this month, Iraqi immigrants in the Fargo-Moorhead area are trying frantically to reach relatives back home.

Rebels have captured some southern cities, throwing the country into chaos. It’s unclear how many have been killed or displaced so far.

The chaos has made it almost impossible to communicate with those in southern Iraq, said Hussein, who supervises translators at Lutheran Social Services in Fargo.

“It is not clear now what’s going on,” he said.

Hussein hails from Tikrit, a city northwest of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, briefly captured Tikrit last week, though it’s now back in government hands.

Life in Tikrit – and Iraq – isn’t as bleak as most Americans picture it, Hussein said. Before the ISIS insurgency began, people held jobs, shopped and sent their kids to school, he said.

“Right now, everything has stopped,” Hussein said.

Fight for independence

ISIS is fighting for an independent state for Sunni Muslims free from the Shiite government’s control.

The fighters claim Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has run the country like a dictator and disregarded the Sunni minority.

Al-Maliki has made it clear he’s governing for the Shiites, said Dr. Thomas Ambrosio, director of the international studies program at North Dakota State University.

Since taking office eight years ago, al-Maliki’s administration has been plagued by corruption and accused of arresting political opponents en masse, Ambrosio said.

“He’s emerged as a dictator,” Ambrosio said. “This is not a good guy.”

The political climate in the country has become so noxious that some Sunnis are more willing to support ISIS than try to work with al-Maliki, he said.

But ISIS doesn’t simply want a separate state for Sunnis. The group hopes to implement rigid fundamentalist rules similar to the Taliban’s reign in Afghanistan before U.S. intervention.

Though ISIS has already captured a few large cities, it’s unlikely the group will be able to take Baghdad, Ambrosio said. That could lead to a long standoff, with ISIS essentially having its own state in all but name.

“Iraq itself is broken,” Ambrosio said. “It’s not going to be put back together in the near future.”

Kurdish immigrants concerned

While two armies clash over the heart of Iraq, the autonomous region of Kurdistan in the country’s north has seized the opportunity to swell in size.

Kurdish fighters have used the chaos as a chance to capture the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The Kurds have fought for their own independent state for centuries.

But most Kurds would rather stay out of the conflict, said Newzad Brifki, director of the Kurdish Community of America in Moorhead.

Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims, though they aren’t Arabs like Iraqis. Brifki said they have their own problems with al-Maliki – namely, they claim he reneged on a promise to grant the Kurdish regional government more autonomy.

“After he came into power, he lied,” Brifki said.

The fighting between ISIS and al-Maliki’s forces has barely brushed Kurdish land in the north. But that lack of violence has brought a different problem.

Thousands of refugees from the conflict have flooded the Kurdish region, only to find refugees from the Syrian civil war already there.

“It’s very hard,” said Kurdish immigrant Jotyar Tile. “Kurdish people don’t have that much land to support everyone, that much money, that much food. But they’re giving as much as they can.”

Tile said he and the roughly 1,100 other Kurds in the Fargo-Moorhead area have called their family members every day to check on them since the violence escalated earlier this month.

Though he doesn’t know of anyone who’s been hurt so far, Tile said he’s worried the clash could lead to air strikes in his homeland.

Complicating the situation is the Iraqi government’s recent decision to cut its regular contributions to Kurdish coffers.

The state is no longer paying the teachers in Jihan Mohammed’s family, the Moorhead woman said through a translator. Her father lost his military pension.

Tile said there’s a simple solution to end the violence.

“The best thing for everyone is three states. Kurdish, Sunni and Shia,” he said. “It’s hard, but it could happen. That’s the best result for anybody in the Middle East, not just Iraq.”

‘We all act as Iraqis’

The conflict in Iraq stems from ethnic and religious differences. But in the Fargo-Moorhead area, Iraqis stick together regardless of their creeds, Hussein said.

“We all act as Iraqis,” he said. “We care about humanity.”

He said the fighting has brought Fargo-Moorhead Iraqis closer together.

Hend Mohammed, a Moorhead woman who moved with her husband from Baghdad in 2010, frequently calls her family there to check on them.

Those relatives describe a city in chaos, where troops on the northern and southern side make it difficult to leave, she said through a translator.

“Everybody right now is a target,” Mohammed said.

Not every Iraqi can reach their friends and families at home, and that uncertainty leaves them with only one option, Hussein said.

“You will just pray,” he said. “It’s something you will do to believe.”