Most recently, the Iraqi Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah and its capital of the same name has been one of the safest places in Iraq. It was even safer than the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan's other major city, Erbil, which houses local government and military headquarters.
But since Sunni Muslim extremists took over two of Iraq's biggest cities and other territory in northern Iraq, in nearby Ninawa province, earlier this month, all that has changed. Locals have never seen security so tight as it is in Sulaymaniyah right now. They understand the need for it – between 2001 and 2003 Ansar Al Islam, another Sunni Muslim extremist group affiliated with Al Qaeda, took control of terrain, including small villages, in the nearby mountainous Horaman area. Iraqi Kurdish security forces fought the extremists but only managed to finally expel the groups with the help of US munitions in 2003. Before that, the camps were used to launch attacks on Iraqi Kurdish targets and Iraqi Kurdish locals fear the same thing may happen again if another extremist group gains a permanent foothold anywhere in Iraq.
Which is why getting into the province has become more difficult: There is more security at checkpoints at the entrances to the province and Iraqi Kurdistan's security forces now ask more questions about identity and destination.
“Our troops are carefully and cautiously monitoring the situation,” Awat Mohammed, the head of Sulaymaniyah's security committee and deputy mayor, told NIQASH. “These armed extremists are a threat to all of Iraq, not only to our region, and our military are prepared to confront them if necessary.”
“In fact a number of persons of concern were arrested over the past few days,” one member of the military in Sulaymaniyah told NIQASH under condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to comment on these matters. “They were arrested on suspicion of being members of [Sunni Muslim extremist group] the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It is thought they were coming into the city to settle down so they could plan attacks for later on,” he says.
“Staff at the checkpoints have been told they should implement strict security measures and that they have the right to prevent anyone they think is of concern from entering the region,” he added.
Roads in and out of the province have been deemed particularly unsafe and local authorities are advising people not to travel overland. “People should avoid this because of the danger of being abducted by gunmen along the roads. If they need to travel they should go by air,” says Raman Othman, the spokesperson for Sulaymaniyah's provincial authorities.
Travelling by road has been made difficult by extremists in more than one way: Sulaymaniyah is also experiencing a shortage of fuel. The dangerous roads make it hard to deliver fuel and other goods and Sulaymaniyah is also missing out on oil coming from the fought-over Baiji refinery. Locals have started hoarding fuel in their homes in case gas stations run out
The authorities have also banned any trucks with license plates from other Iraqi provinces, especially if the authorities in the semi-autonomous region don't have any documentation on them. Equally tough security measures are also in use at Sulaymaniyah's airport.
Another thing that provincial security forces are doing is keeping a close eye on the activities of any of the young people who went to fight in Syria, where they may have made the acquaintance of members of ISIS or other militant groups, before returning home.
Up to an estimated 200 locals, mostly young men, did this but many of them have in fact reported to Iraqi Kurdistan's version of secret police, the Asayesh. All of these young men are now under surveillance for fear that the militant groups may try and contact them again.
The relative of one of these men told NIQASH that this local, who came back from Syria eight months ago, has been questioned by the Asayesh many times and that the house is being watched. “That is even though he [the young man] has absolutely nothing to do with any extremist groups anymore,” the relative said. “He returned to Iraqi Kurdistan after just a month away and he had totally changed his mind about jihad.”
Additionally, a source inside the local security forces, said that Iraqi Kurdistan's secret police were also watching local mosques closely. Religious classes and discussion groups, outside of regular prayer times and sermons, had been banned for the time being.
ISIS is a threat to Sulaymaniyah but it is not that close, the provincial authorities say. They are just taking precautions. “I want to reassure citizens that they will be well protected,” deputy mayor Mohammed says. “Citizens are going to be safe but they must also cooperate with us as we will not be able to maintain security by ourselves if citizens don't play their part.”