Thousands of Sunni Arabs from Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, escaped to Erbil at the end of the summer when the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State first overran the city and imposed a draconian social code.
Among them is a man we'll call the professor — he, his wife and their children fled Mosul in August. He doesn't want his name published because his extended family still lives there under ISIS control.
The professor now lives in Erbil, at the Motel Delicious, a seedy place despite the enticing name, with parakeets in the lobby and every room packed with his neighbors from Mosul.
"I think ISIS is losing now," says the professor.
He and others from Mosul are all watching for signs that their city will be the next target of an Iraqi government assault to oust ISIS from major urban areas seized by the militants last summer.
The professor says that ISIS is more paranoid than they were when the militant group first entered the city in June. Six months ago, they blew up the cell phone towers around the city. Now, his relatives can only call late at night, standing on roof tops to catch distant signals. Recently, ISIS shut down all the escape routes out of the city.
"So dangerous to try to get of Mosul now," he says, based on reports from his sisters still in Mosul.
Getting out was never easy. Residents could go for hospital treatments and education, but they had to pledge to return, handing over documents for cars and houses as a guarantee. These days, even that deal has been called off.
"Nowadays, they forbid everything. Everyone cannot get out of Mosul," he says.
The only way is by paying a smuggler, but even those routes are dangerous due to coalition bombings.
It's a city where beheadings and floggings became routine, and people believed to be heretics, like the Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq, could be sold as slaves. Smoking is forbidden and women must be completely covered from head to toe. Lately, even their eyes must be covered.
Despite the harsh social rules, the markets remain full. Produce is brought in from Syria and sellers set up shop from the back of the trucks, he says.
"Everything is available there, and people are still taking salaries from the government," he says. "Maybe at least 30, 40 percent of people are still taking salaries."
Iraqi officials confirm Baghdad spends up to $16 million a month on the government payroll in Mosul. But ISIS taxes the wages and takes a cut, say Western diplomats.
Daily life is increasingly grim. Fighters are on edge as coalition airstrikes hit ISIS military bases and convoys. Some ISIS fighters have retreated to Mosul from the nearby battlefront in Tikrit, where the government launched the first major assault against ISIS. Other fighters are pulling out of Mosul to head for the relative safety of Syria.
Other ISIS fighters are pulling out of Mosul to head for the relative safety of Syria. The professor's relatives report there is tension between the local Iraqis and the foreign fighters.
"I saw them fighting — Iraqi's local and the foreigners," he says. "Some of the foreigners started to take their families and travel outside — and the local fighters reject."
On Tuesday, across Mosul, Iraqi government planes dropped 2 million leaflets promising liberation soon.
"Your armed forces are close to you, and they are ready to participate with you in defeating ISIS," was the message on the floating papers. But that seems unlikely.
The Iraqi army is far from ready for an assault on Iraqi's second largest city. The first assault on ISIS in Tikrit has stalled for more than a week. The forces leading that military campaign are primarily Iraq's Shiite militias, backed and trained by Iran.
And if they succeed?
"You bring in the military force, and you fight the terrorist there, you evict them. And then what?" asks Qubad Talabani, vice president of the Kurdish regional government.
In other words, Iraq's militia may be able to take Tikrit, but it's unclear they will be able to hold it.
Mosul will be even a more difficult and sensitive operation, Talabani says. The city is five times larger than Tikrit, with more than 1 million civilians, mostly Sunni Arabs, who welcomed ISIS when they first arrived, relieved to be rid of an oppressive Shiite-dominated government and army. Now, the Sunnis of Mosul are watching Shiite forces battling ISIS in Tikrit.
"That's the problem with the Tikrit operation, that it is a purely Shiite-led military operation against a heavily Sunni place of the country," Talabani says. "This is Saddam's birthplace here, with no political endgame anywhere in sight. Not for the people of Tikrit, not for the Sunnis of Iraq."
The professor says attitudes in Mosul have changed after eight months of ISIS rule.
Compared to those early months, ISIS is beginning to lose support day by day.
"Every day, rejection is increasing," he says.
But it's still not clear if a loss for ISIS is a win for the government of Baghdad. There is no political plan for broad reconciliation between Iraqi's Sunnis and Shiites as the push against ISIS in Tikrit and Mosul is on hold.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Pro-government forces in Iraq have put their fight to retake the town of Tikrit on hold. The town was captured by the self-declared Islamic State in June along with the larger city of Mosul. Iraqi officials say Tikrit would be a step toward taking back Mosul. For a glimpse of life under ISIS control, NPR's Deborah Amos spoke to an Iraqi who fled Mosul last August, but keeps in touch with his family there.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: He lives at the Motel Delicious - a seedy place despite the enticing name, with parakeets in the lobby and every room packed with neighbors from Mosul. A professor, he fled the city in August with his wife and kids. We can't name him because his extended family still lives in Mosul. They call him when they can. On a drive to a local restaurant, he tells me ISIS is more paranoid now. Six months ago, they blew up the cellphone towers. His relatives call late at night, standing on the roof top to catch distant signals. Recently ISIS shut down all escape routes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So dangerous to try to get out of Mosul now.
AMOS: Getting out was never easy. Residents could go if they pledged to return, but had to hand over documents for cars and houses as a guarantee.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nowadays they forbid everything - anyone cannot get out of Mosul.
AMOS: The only way out is to get smuggled out.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.
AMOS: Thousands of Sunni Arabs escaped here to Erbil when ISIS first tightened the rules in Mosul. They fled a city where beheadings and floggings became routine. As the waiter here sets out platters of hot bread and grilled meats, I ask is this kind of meal still available in Mosul?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everything is available there. And there's people still taking salaries from government. Maybe at least 30 or 40 percent of people are still taking salaries.
AMOS: Baghdad spends up to $16 million a month for the government payroll, but ISIS taxes the wages and takes a cut, say Western diplomats. Fighters are now on edge as coalition airstrikes hit their military bases and convoys. Some are pulling out of Mosul to head for Syria. The professor's relatives report there's tension among local and foreign fighters.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I saw them fighting. He said some of the foreigners started to take their families and to travel outside of Iraq, and the local fighters reject.
AMOS: On Tuesday, Iraqi government planes dropped 2 million leaflets over Mosul promising liberation soon, but that seems unlikely. U.S. officials say the Iraqi army is far from ready. And the first government assault on ISIS in Tikrit has stalled for more than a week. Even there that fight is led by Shiite militias backed and trained by Iran.
QUBAD TALABANI: OK, fine. You bring in the military force and you fight the terrorists there, you evict them, then what?
AMOS: That's Qubad Talabani, the vice president of the Kurdish regional government. He says Iraq's pro-government militias may be able to take back Tikrit, but can they hold it? And Mosul will be even harder. It's a city with more than a million civilians, mostly Sunni Arabs. They welcomed ISIS militants when they first arrived because they saw them as protectors against an oppressive Shiite-dominated government and army. Now the Sunnis of Mosul see Shiite forces battling ISIS in Tikrit.
TALABANI: That's the problem with the Tikrit operation, that it is a purely Shiite-led military operation against a heavily Sunni place of the country. This is Saddam's birthplace here, with no political endgame anywhere in sight, not for the people of Tikrit, not for the Sunnis of Iraq.
AMOS: For the Sunnis of Mosul, attitudes have changed, says the professor, after eight months of ISIS rule.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They are rejecting nowadays, not like June, July or August, you know? Every day the rejectance increasing.
AMOS: Do you think now that ISIS is losing?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Started to lose - they started to lose when they lost the people.
AMOS: But it's still not clear that a loss for ISIS is a win for Baghdad as the push into Tikrit and Mosul is on hold. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Erbil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.