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June 24, 2017

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Iraqis seek shelter from battles and privation

KALAK, Iraq--On a dusty patch of land off a highway in northern Iraq, Faisal watches his three-week-old son cry in the tent that is now his home.

The temperature hovers around 40 degrees Celsius, and aid being distributed to those at the camp, including mattresses and fans, has yet to reach Faisal's tent.

He brought his family here days earlier, fleeing the strategic Shiite-majority town of Tal Afar when Sunni militants swept in.

"We left after they arrived. I'm Sunni, but I knew that there would be fighting and killing and I didn't want to do either," he says, his bare feet covered in grit.

Standing next to him is 25-year-old Mohammed, who fled his home in Mosul, the first city to fall to a major militant offensive that began last week and overran swathes of Iraq in a matter of days.

"They came to me and told me, even though I'm Muslim, that I had to pledge allegiance to them and go to the mosque to re-declare my faith!"

"They considered me an infidel," he said, pointing to tattoos on his arms that puritanical jihadists consider a violation of Islamic law.

Mohammed decided to leave immediately, taking his 10-month-old daughter Maryam and wife Ghajar with him.

The camp they are in is just outside the border with Iraq's autonomous three-province Kurdish region, which non-residents can enter only with a special permit.

Those permits are being issued to many fleeing the militant advance, particularly minority Christians and Yazidis.

But Sunni Arabs require a sponsor inside Kurdish territory to enter, and many like Faisal and Mohammed don't have one.

They say they are glad to be safe, but complain that the conditions at the camp are tough.

Dust devils sweep through it, raising spirals of rubbish as children wander aimlessly between the tents below.

Waiting to Register

"We've been here two days, and we have to wait for someone to register us before we can get aid," Faisal says.

He crowds hopefully with his already-registered neighbors as they surge toward aid offered by the International Organization for Migration and a Kurdish charity.

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