Three Factions Vie In Iraq's Growing Crisis

Shiites in Iraq appear to be joining militias to defend themselves against Sunni insurgents. NPR's Scott Simon gets the latest from NPR's Leila Fadel in Erbil.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon sitting in for Rachel Martin. She's had a baby boy this morning.

We're going to begin this hour with Iraq, which appears to crumbling. The Shiite militias mobilized to battle the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. The extremist group has taken large stretches of the country with the support of other Sunni armed groups, and it appears that the all-out civil war that's been feared may be just ahead. Shiite gunmen marched through Baghdad and seized control of a town northeast of the capital to try to stop the advance of the fundamentalist group. Meanwhile, refugees are flowing into the Kurdish north from Mosul and surrounding areas.

NPR's Leila Fadel joins us now from the city of Erbil in Kurdistan. Leila, thanks very much for being with us.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: What seems to be the current status of the fighting?

FADEL: Well, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq has taken a full province, Nineveh province, including the second-largest city in Iraq and parts of three others. The army is sort of falling apart, and they're being bolstered by Shia militias sort of responding to a call to arms by the most influential Shia cleric in the world, really, who said that people should take up arms to defend against this group within the legal framework.

Meanwhile, the Kurds are taking disputed territory abandoned by the Iraqi Army, including a border point with Syria. And it just seems like Iraq is falling apart, is dividing, and people are very fearful of the bloody fight ahead.

SIMON: Leila, are there any prospects at the moment for a political solution?

FADEL: Well, at this point, it doesn't seem like there is one. The Prime Minister, really the caretaker prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has declared a state of emergency and says he's been given all powers to fight this threat. He's an embattled figure. He's seen as really the reason that this has happened because he's ruled in a very sectarian and corrupt way, according to his critics. He's pushed out a lot of Sunni influential leaders, and that's why the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq is getting the support that they have right now because a lot of the Sunni community feels marginalized and fearful in this state.

SIMON: Leila, what can you tell us about Iran's role or potential role? There've been reports that Iranian fighters are helping the Shiite-led Iraqi army. The president of Iran yesterday offered to help and even suggested that Iran might cooperate with the U.S.

FADEL: Well, this is a huge threat to Shia Iran next door. And Iran has, for a long time, had a huge role in Iraq. The two most powerful Shia militias here in the country are trained and sort of born from training from Iran. And so it's always had a large role. And so it's unclear what the role ahead will be. But they said they will help and there may be a sort of cooperation or they're open to cooperation with the United States with this common enemy.

SIMON: You're in the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan. Help us understand some of the thinking that you're hearing there because the prospect of Iraq crumbling apart is not necessarily a grim one for a lot of Kurds.

FADEL: That's true. This is a semiautonomous region. It functions differently. It has its own systems, and it has, a long time, wanted its own state. They are also fighting the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq but at the same time taking the territories that they feel should be part of their future independent state, including Kirkuk and this border point. So if that continues, will they give it back? That's not - doesn't seem to be the way it's going. And so really, it's the start of a new state here and possibly the division of Iraq south of here.

SIMON: NPR's Leila Fadel in Erbil. Thanks very much for being with us.

FADEL: Thank you.

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