Islamist Militants Gain Ground In Northern Iraq

Sunni Islamist militants have seized control of the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit and appear to be preparing an assault on Baghdad. Americans fought and died trying to prevent that from happening.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. In Iraq, Islamist militants are gaining ground in the north of the country, with astonishing speed. After they took the large city of Mosul, on Monday, Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit fell into their hands yesterday. And now they're moving into areas close to Baghdad. These are all places, where Americans fought and died, trying to prevent just this from happening. NPR's Alice Fordham is in the Iraqi city of Erbil. And she joins us to talk more about this. And Alice, what is the latest?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, fighters, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the extremist group, known as Isis, now seem to be pretty entrenched in Mosul. There's no suggestion that anyone's fighting back against them. And they're holding the city of Tikrit. And it seems they have a presence closer to Baghdad, in the town of Samarra, as well. And in a side development, it seems that forces from the Kurdish part Iraq have taken the opportunity, in the midst of this chaos, to seize territory in the city of Kirkuk.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. And I think it's fair to say, that most people, outside of Iraq, would not have even heard of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, you know, up until these last days. Tell us more about this group, Isis.

FORDHAM: They're a Sunni Islamist extremist group that grew out of the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq. And they expanded their horizons into Syria, when the civil war there gave them a chance to get a foothold, in Syria. And what people around here know them for is, is for recruiting a lot for foreign fighters. Fervent Muslims, from all over the world, who want to fight in holy wars. Many of whom end up conducting suicide missions, here in Iraq. What they want to do is establish a Sunni Islamic State. Their big targets are the Syrian and Iraqi government, which they see as Shiite, as heretics. And, of course, they're implacable foes of America. They were disowned by al-Qaida for being too brutal in Syria and alienating people. But honestly, that doesn't seem to be holding them back very much.

MONTAGNE: And when you talk about them, is it just them? Are they the only group?

FORDHAM: No. So in Fallujah, in Iraq, which they took over several months ago, the Isis fighters were, what you might call, the tip of the spear. But they were supported by local Sunni militias and some people, who call themselves tribal fighters. And the governor of the city of Mosul, that they've now taken over, in the last few days, told me, yesterday, that he thinks some of them are Baathists, as well, loyalists to Saddam Hussein. And others are local militias, who've had a hold here for a long time.

MONTAGNE: And so these local militias - does that imply that they have some local support?

FORDHAM: Very possibly. The thing about the swiftness of the fall of Mosul and of Tikrit is that from what we're hearing, these places fell without much of a fight. Now, that doesn't mean that people welcomed these militants, who have extreme views on Islamic law. But it might mean there wasn't enough local opposition to put up a serious fight.

MONTAGNE: Well, Alice, why would they welcome them in the first place?

FORDHAM: Well, a lot of people really want their city to fall out of state control. They really hate state control. These are Sunni-dominated cities that we're talking about. The state is mostly Shiite. And for years and years, Sunnis have been mounting protest movements, having sit-ins, campaigning, saying that under the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, they're discriminated against. They're torture. They're imprisoned, unfairly. So in some ways, the ground is set for an alternative leadership to take over in these places.

MONTAGNE: Then, finally, I mean, what is Maliki doing, at this point? Can he turn this back?

FORDHAM: Well, I'm getting unconfirmed reports that there are special forces headed to Takrit, rather ominously, for a lot of people. Maliki has said that he will bolster the armed forces with volunteers, which many people worry means Shiite informal militias, which could deepen the sectarian problem. But Mosul? I doubt he can take back at the moment. At a checkpoint full of displaced people, yesterday, that I was at, the UN and local NGOs were building this camp. You know, shiny, new rows of new tents, which they say can house 3,000 people. I was there, when the first family rolled in, all piled up in a truck and confused. And asked the supervisor, how long it'll be there. And he just shrugged. And he said, the fighting is just beginning.

MONTAGNE: Alice, thank you very much.

FORDHAM: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That NPR's Alice Fordham, speaking to us from the Iraqi city of Erbil.

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