Even Amid Onslaught, Hints That Violence In Iraq Could Escalate

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NPR's Alice Fordham speaks to Melissa Block about the extremist militant onslaught in Iraq, as well as the possibility of escalating violence there.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Iraq is still under an onslaught by Sunni militant extremists. They captured the strategic city of Mosul this week and are holding large swathes of the country. If the Iraqi government was expecting the U.S. to send in the cavalry and help save the country from disintegration, President Obama said today that will not happen. He did say he's weighing a range of options to support Iraq's security forces. Those options presumably include airstrikes. The president said it is Iraq's responsibility to deal with its divisions.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Unfortunately, Iraq's leaders have been unable to overcome, too often, the mistrust and sectarian differences that have long been simmering there. And that's created vulnerabilities within the Iraqi government, as well as their security forces.

BLOCK: I'm joined now by NPR's Alice Fordham, who's been reporting from Northern Iraq until this morning. She joins me now from Beirut. And, Alice, what's the latest news today?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, we had big news from Friday press, with a statement from someone who's arguably the most influential person in Iraq. Through a spokesman, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - you can almost compare him to a Pope for Shiite Muslims - urged Shiites to take up arms and defend their country from this advance by Sunni militants. Sistani is elderly, he's usually very peaceable. He's called for peaceful solutions to Iraq's problems. So this is a sign of how desperate the Shiite community, the majority in Iraq, has become and this statement will likely be used as justification for Shiite armed violence against Sunni groups with horrible echoes of the sectarian war that we had in 2007.

BLOCK: And, Alice, that call for Shiites to take up arms follows a harrowing message from the Sunni insurgents who are spearheading the take-over of parts of Iraq. Talk a bit about what was in that message.

FORDHAM: It was a message full of gloating and triumph. It vows to take over more areas of the country, including areas particularly holy to Shiite Muslims, and it says it will install there its extreme version of Islamic law - amputations for smoking, beheadings, this kind of thing. We've already seen them try to do this in Syria, where they control one big city and various other chunks of territory.

BLOCK: And, Alice, if you look at where things stand now, looking at a map of Iraq, who controls what?

FORDHAM: Well, ISIS and allied Sunni insurgents, who often have popular support, have taken Mosul, a city of 2 million people. They already hold parts of Western Iraq, including Fallujah. They've moved into Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. Reports coming out of Mosul suggest that a campaign of executions has begun. Those reports have been confirmed by the United Nations. Targets seem to include security forces and government employees. There are concerns that ISIS could move on toward Baghdad, it's only about an hour's drive or less from the areas that they control now. Realistically that would really mean taking on the Shiite population, which would mean that they would face much more resistance.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Alice Fordham. Alice, thanks.

FORDHAM: You're welcome.

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