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US contractors evacuate Balad air base in Iraq -

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BRENDAN TREMBATH: Islamic militants are quickly advancing on Baghdad after claiming a huge stretch of predominantly Sunni Arab territory in northern and north-central Iraq.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari acknowledged the security forces which Washington invested billions in training and equipping had simply melted away.

As the jihadists head south, US companies are pulling out hundreds of American contractors working at Iraq's Balad air base about 80 kilometres from Baghdad.

The militants belong to ISIS, a movement so radical it has been disavowed even by the al Qaeda leadership.

Our correspondent Matt Brown is in the northern Iraqi town of Erbil and joins me now.

Matt Brown what have you seen so far?

MATT BROWN: Well it's been pretty interesting this morning Brendan. We've been to the main checkpoint between Mosul and Erbil and there I saw people were still arriving, there were still people fleeing from Mosul in the wake of this takeover of Mosul by the ISIS fighters.

But also we're hearing reports of people heading back to Mosul. And underlying that I think is a very interesting foundation to what we're seeing here and that is perhaps there is a lot more cooperation with these ISIS fighters from the Sunni community.

And we are hearing - I don't know if I can believe it given the well-deserved reputation for brutality of ISIS - but we are hearing that they are being cautious to treat people in a more gentle fashion, regular people, when they're dealing with them at checkpoints and that sort of thing; that they're telling people we're here to look after you, to liberate you and that we're only looking for officials of the al-Maliki regime.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: What's the general feeling in the city where you are?

MATT BROWN: In Erbil it's still very benign, very relaxed. I mean this is a stronghold of the Kurdish forces. We're only, well less than 100 kilometres I think, from Mosul but look at what the Sunni militants have done. They haven't driven east into this town, they've driven a long way south towards Baghdad and I think firstly they'd be ill-advised to take on the Kurdish Peshmerga militia which is a far superior force and far better disciplined than the Iraqi soldiers who've been dissolving in the face of ISIS, but also it's not their objective.

So here it seems fairly relaxed. There are people who've fled from Mosul. There are Iraqi soldiers who've also abandoned their post trying to jump on planes to head home because they don't want to be picked up at military checkpoints and detained as deserters, but other than that not too bad.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: So soldiers still in uniform, partial uniform, or they've shed them completely?

MATT BROWN: Yeah, they've shed them completely. The reports were that they did that at the time of their desertion and they've been in town around the marketplace here just waiting and trying to find a way to get out.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: The insurgent group ISIS, which is a breakaway group from al-Qaeda, do they have enough firepower to make that advance all the way to the capital?

MATT BROWN: No I don't think they do but I think there is something else going on there. ISIS, for all of their veracity and strength and their purported funding from powers in the Gulf, are not strong enough even to deal with Mosul, a city of 1.7 million people or so.

If the local community doesn't want them there and if the local tribal leaders wanted to eject them, remember after the American invasion of Iraq and the disastrous handling of the aftermath, the Sunni tribes were part of the process of rising up against the Americans and also against the new Shi'ite led government thereafter, and it wasn't until the militias of the Sunni tribes were put on the payroll, and it wasn't until those Sunni people experienced the brutality of al-Qaeda and resisted it and revolted against it, that al-Qaeda was vanquished.

So the negative of that's happening here. The Maliki government has alienated these people, not managed to deal with their concerns, gone after their leaders and effected mass arrests and now effectively is not seen as the national government or a national army, but as the enemy.

So these ISIS fighters I think are certainly operating with, if not outright cooperation and outright coordination, certainly with a sort of tacit agreement from the broader Sunni community leadership.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: These fighters are claiming more territory each day; Tikrit, Mosul, those famous battlegrounds from the Iraq war but what do these fighters ultimately want? What's the goal?

MATT BROWN: Well if you roughly translate their Arabic name, it's the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. That said, greater Syria, which is a much broader historical area. So they want to wipe out the borders that have defined this territory for the past 100 years and create an Islamic caliphate stretching all the way from this sort of territory over across to the Mediterranean.

They have been very successful in Syria, in conquering towns and taking the fight to Bashar al-Assad's forces, and in Syria you saw a process similar to what I was describing here in 2005, '06, '07 when more moderate, less extreme Sunni Arabs rose up. In Syria at the start of this year you saw less extreme militias, less extreme rebel groups fighting against ISIS, because locals were sick of the way ISIS brutalised them, the standards of behaviour and the extreme brand of Islam that they impose but also because their own authority was being undermined.

So ISIS have been driven back to the north-east areas of Syria, back towards the border here with Iraq, but at the same time that broader problem of Sunni/ Shi'ite relations have just been raging here in Iraq all year and I think you're seeing them riding in on the back of that with this extraordinary push down towards Baghdad.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Middle East correspondent Matt Brown in the northern Iraqi town of Erbil.