As ISIS Advances, Iraq's Military Melts Down

Forces from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, now control much of Iraq, as the country's military has disintegrated in the face of the group's radical troops. NPR's Arun Rath talks to The Guardian's Martin Chulov in Baghdad about the latest.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Mosul and Tikrit, these are the names of Iraqi cities well-known to veterans of the Iraq war who fought there. And in a matter of days, they have been retaken by Islamic insurgents. Those insurgents are now moving toward Baghdad. ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is leading the forces.

Martin Chulov is Middle East correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. He joins us from Baghdad. Martin, there are some pretty grim headlines here about the extremist militants advancing south all week, taking control of city after city. And now they have their sites on Baghdad. You're in Baghdad. How nervous are people there?

MARTIN CHULOV: Well, they certainly have been very nervous all week. People were stockpiling, the streets were empty, abandoned. There was a sense of foreboding and very much a feel that the enemy is at the gates. And that is partly true. If we look at the ISIS positions, they are roughly a 60 miles north and 40 miles west.

The question is - can they press their advances? - because let's not forget that the rapid capitulation of the North was due to the fact that three divisions of the Iraqi military simply cut and ran. They fled, made it very, very easy for several thousand militia men to roll into Mosul and to Tikrit and then threatened Kirkuk before the Peshmerga took it - different story in Baghdad. This city is the seat of power - of Shia power, as well - and it will be heavily defended.

RATH: You know, some of the pictures that we see of ISIS, they look more like a well-organized army than your typical ragtag insurgent group. What do we know about how the militants have been trained and armed?

CHULOV: Well, we know that they are very much cashed up. We know that they seized at least $500 million last week in Mosul alone by raiding banks. They've also done very well from the oil fields of eastern Syria. The conservative intelligence estimate is that this organization has cash and resources of around about $1.2 billion now. It is very effective. It is very organized. And it is very, very disciplined. And this is what it senses is its moment. It's attempting to press home its agenda, which is to enforce an Islamic caliphate and to oust the Shia power base in Iraq, which it's attempting to do with ruthless military force on one hand and quiet coercion on the other, as it attempts to establish itself among the Sunni communities.

RATH: Martin, do these - these insurgents, the militants we're talking about are Sunnis. And just yesterday, the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq called for young Shiite men to take up arms and fight. What stands between what we have right now and a full-blown sectarian war in Iraq?

CHULOV: It's an extremely delicate phase for Iraq at the moment. And you're absolutely right that the battle space is going to be fought out between non-state actors - between a Sunni insurgent group who cares very little about nation-state borders, and Shia irregulars, who were extremely active in the sectarian war in 2006 and are now reorganizing rapidly.

And just in the last 12 hours alone, the recruitment centers all over Baghdad and the South have opened up. And they're doing a roaring trade. We went to visit one today, and they've been doing exceptionally well in the central city - suburb - of Karada. Others to the South have - are claiming to have at least 25,000 volunteers. The question of who they will be responsible or answerable to is yet to be answered. But it does appear that they will have primacy over the Iraqi military, and that really is a significant shift.

RATH: Martin Chulov is Middle East correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. He joined us from Baghdad. Martin, thank you and stay safe.

CHULOV: You're welcome.

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