Gulf Neighbors Struggle To Deal With Militant Advance In Iraq

The takeover of much of Iraq — one of the hubs of the Middle East — by extremist militants has shaken the region. How do Iraq's neighbors see the conflict rippling throughout the area?

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You are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. The swift advance of radical Sunni Islamists into northern Iraq is catching the world and the region by surprise. U.S. ships with Marines aboard are headed to the Gulf. American and Iranian officials remarkably appear ready to talk with one another about their options in Iraq. Shiite Iran is a key ally of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and is mostly Shiite government. On Sunday, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, claimed to have captured and slaughtered hundreds of Iraqi soldiers - all of them Shiite Muslims. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Dubai on how Iraq's neighbors are reacting to these dramatic events.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Here in the gulf, official reactions have been muted, but public fears are rising, says Taufiq Rahim, a Dubai-based analyst. Two conflicts have been joined - the Syrian Civil War and a larger one looming in Iraq - erasing an international border along the way.

TAUFIQ RAHIM: Right now, the border with Syria and Iraq is redrawn. There is no border with Syria and Iraq. It is the same entity on both sides.

AMOS: ISIS is the entity. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria spells out its ambitions in its name and now controls a state-sized territory that spans from northern Syria to western Iraq.

RAHIM: We are looking at - really, in a grander picture of a true threat to the entire order in the Arab world and the Middle East itself.

AMOS: That ISIS could so swiftly move on Mosul reveals the depths of Iraq's sectarian divide. Mosul is a predominantly Sunni city - a community long alienated in the predominantly Shiite government in Baghdad. ISIS rode that wave of Sunni anger, finding allies among Sunni tribal leaders, ex-military officers under Saddam Hussein and other Islamist groups in Iraq. The national army didn't put up a fight. As one Arab columnist wrote, if there's a competition for the least fortunate Arab people, Iraqis are the winners. The only options available seem to be a sectarian government or erratic, brutal terrorism. For regional powers, events in Iraq are also viewed from a sectarian lens, says analyst Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute.

ANDREW TABLER: Their people support the opposition in Syria, which is Sunni - primarily Sunni. And they also want to support Sunni interests in Iraq, as well.

AMOS: Gulf monarchs have been seething over the recent nuclear negotiations between Iran and the U.S. Now Washington and Tehran have common interest in bolstering the Iraqi state which has the Gulf states even more on edge but not yet willing to make their positions clear, says Tabler.

TABLER: Gulf reaction to date has been relatively muted. We've had a few statements out of Gulf monarchies, but relatively quiet.

AMOS: It is unlikely the Saudis will come to Prime Minister Maliki's aid. The Saudis see him as a pawn of Iran, a sectarian leader who empowered Iraqi Shiites at the expense of the Sunnis. The Saudi king has repeatedly refused to meet Maliki despite a long shared border. Feisal Istrabadi, Iraq's former U.N. envoy, now a U.S.-based academic, says the Iraqi state is crumbling.

FEISAL ISTRABADI: If Iraq falls apart, it will not fall apart into three neat pieces. What you're much more likely to see is a Somalia in Iraq - a Somalia bordering Turkey, Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The stakes are huge.

AMOS: He says Iraq has to form an inclusive government that begins to reach out to Sunnis and reverse the failures of the Maliki government.

ISTRABADI: They have squandered every opportunity over the last eight years to solve the problem. So here the United States can, perhaps through the contacts that it has developed in the last few months with Iran, play a constructive role in the diplomacy around the issues of the leadership of Iraq.

AMOS: Washington has sent an additional aircraft carrier to the Gulf. Iran is offering military assistance, but this is not enough once, warns Istrabadi.

ISTRABADI: If there's not a willingness to make the political reform and to change the leadership of Iraq internally in Iraq, than no amount of foreign intervention will make a difference.

AMOS: Civilians continue to flee Mosul. Many say they're more afraid of government airstrikes than the militant Sunnis of ISIS. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Dubai.

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