Militants Advance Toward Iraq's Capital

President Obama ruled out sending in U.S. ground forces to Iraq, but vows to take action. NPR's Scott Simon talks to reporter Jane Arraf as Islamic fighters push closer to Baghdad.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama is weighing a range of options to try to respond to the rise of radical Islamist fighters in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, now controls a wide stretch of territory in Iraq's Sunni heartland, and they are threatening to march on Baghdad. Now this is a group that is so extreme, even al-Qaida's leadership has distanced itself from them.

Reporter Jane Arraf joins us from Erbil, which is the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government. Jane, thanks very much for being with us.

JANE ARRAF: Thank you.

SIMON: Can you tell how much territory ISIS controls now?

ARRAF: Oh, it controls all of Mosul - hugely significant because it's Iraq's second biggest city and not that far from the Kurdish territory. It also controls, by all accounts, Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. There's fighting on the edges of Samarra, which is where a vital Shia shrine is, whose bombing led to the civil war that this country went through just a few years ago. And, of course, it continues in Fallujah with ISIS in control of most of Fallujah, a city familiar to Americans from that bitter battle in 2004.

As this is Iraq, it's not quite as simple as just ISIS being in control. In Mosul, it's several groups, including former Baathists, young men from Al Anbar, and kind of a new face of ISIS that we haven't seen before.

SIMON: The new face is what?

ARRAF: Essentially, as odd as it seems, a group that's trying to be kinder, gentler and all about good governance. Now I've been hearing this over and over from people who have fled Mosul, including a priest I spoke with yesterday who went back to Mosul to check on his church. He said they smiled at him, they said welcome back, and they actually asked he and the nuns to pray for them, to pray for victory.

The people who have fled Mosul are terrified of potential airstrikes and terrified of the al-Qaida that they knew in the past that has slaughtered people. They say this is not that same group. They've restored water. They've restored electricity. They've actually taken money that they've looted from the central bank, and according to residents and former officials from Mosul, they've handed them out to people to clean the streets. Now that doesn't mean there's a rosy scenario ahead for that city. They've also put out a manifesto that tells women that they need to dress modestly and, wherever possible, stay home.

SIMON: Iraq's leading Shiite cleric has called on able-bodied men to take up arms against ISIS. Are they in a better position than the American trained Iraqi army who shucked off their uniforms and fled the scene?

ARRAF: Well, certainly one of the dynamics there is that for the past ten years as the U.S. has been spending billions of dollars on training Iraqi security forces, there hasn't been so much invested on the political front. So you have an army that's seen as quite sectarian Shia-based for the most part. And it's never been welcomed in places like Mosul, and certainly in Fallujah, where they were driven out. They're not really capable of the kind of tasks they're being called to do, which isn't just protecting the border as armies normally do, they're actually being asked to do classic counterinsurgency, and they're just not equipped for it.

So the Shia militia certainly are an integral, although unfortunate, now, part of the security scene here. They certainly will be more effective in fighting but also more effective in what many fear is what we're seeing as the unfolding disintegration of this country. As soon as Shia militias get involved, you get the scenario that we've seen so painfully here before, which is essentially civil war - Shia militias versus Sunni extremists.

SIMON: At the center of President Obama's remarks yesterday seemed to be an appeal - maybe even a precondition to the Shiite Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, to reach out to other communities. Is there an indication that that's going to happen?

ARRAF: I think now if it hadn't been painfully clear that that kind of reconciliation had been needed, certainly now he is in a position to have to ask help from people who he normally wouldn't be seeking help from. That includes not just the Americans but also significantly the Kurds. The Kurdish Peshmerga - the fighting force here that's been trained and ready and fighting for decades against Saddam Hussein to start with - is really the only efficient fighting force that's left, so Prime Minister Maliki is asking for help from the Kurds. Now the Kurds and Maliki's party and the Sunni parties are embroiled in a political crisis as well as this security crisis. So that further complicates the position that Nouri al-Maliki is in.

SIMON: Reporter Jane Arraf speaking from Erbil in the Kurdish territories of Iraq. Thanks so much for being with us.

ARRAF: Thank you.

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