Sunni Insurgency Threatens To Plunge Iraq Into Sectarian War

Islamist Sunni militants reportedly control most of Iraq's largest oil refinery, as they vow to push on to Baghdad. Meanwhile, there is a growing call for Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to step down.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Militants, pushing their way into Baghdad, are at the gate of the country's largest refinery. And it's shutdown. On top of all the uncertainties and hardships, faced by ordinary Iraqis, now comes a critical shortage of gasoline. And international pressure is growing for Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to step down. For more on the latest Sunni extremist advances in Iraq, we reached NPR's Leila Fadel in Erbil. Leila, good morning.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And you are in the Kurdish-controlled north. What are you seeing there right now?

FADEL: Well, the Kurdish-controlled north, the semiautonomous region, is a relative oasis of calm. There has been pretty much no violence here because the Peshmerga forces control this area. But what we are seeing are very long fuel lines at every gas station and a scarcity of gas. And this is due to, apparently, the continued battle for the Baiji refinery, the largest oil refinery in Iraq. We spoke to an engineer that works at the refinery. He evacuated a few days ago, but lives just a mile away from the refinery. He's saying that there is a standoff there that there are negotiations going on between the head of security and the gunmen, Sunni militants, who are trying to take the refinery, that employees were evacuated, the ones that were left inside this morning. And the only ones that are still inside are Security Forces and security for that refinery, as the gunmen try to go inside. He also says that he's hearing aircraft and strikes from the Iraqi government, apparently.

MONTAGNE: Now, there has been, as I've just mentioned, a drumbeat of calls for Prime Minister Maliki to step down. What about where you are in the Kurdish region? What are people saying there? And what have you heard in your reporting?

FADEL: We spoke to the former minister of interior of Iraq, from 2004, Falah al-Naqib. And he said, you know, what I'm doing here is trying to reach out to former officers in the Iraq Army, under Suddam Hussein, and see what type of solution we can provide that will stop the fighting. And he's saying that first step has to be that Maliki goes. He's seen as a really corrupt and sectarian figure, that has marginalized so much of the Sunni population. And they're frustrated.

MONTAGNE: Well, that goes to something about this group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, that it has drawn in supporters in Iraq, as it has come into that country. Why is that? Why are the Sunnis, who are maybe not as radical, supporting ISIS?

FADEL: ISIS is one of what seems to be a de facto alliance between mainly former officers in Saddam's army, Baathists from his time, and these radicals, who want to form an Islamic state in Iraq. They have sort of allied on the lines that they all feel that they're marginalized under this government. And so when speaking about what's happening in Iraq and the swaths of territory that's been taken by ISIS, it's not just ISIS. It's ISIS, but it's also Sunni tribes, former officers, who say they're going to restore the old army that was disbanded after the U.S.-led invasion. So it's much bigger than just this one group.

MONTAGNE: From the people that you've been talking to, in your reporting, what sense do you have about how much of a threat there is of a civil war there?

FADEL: I think people feel that Iraq barely survived their last sectarian war in 2006, 2007. And in speaking to officials, they say that if Sunni militants reach Baghdad, it will be a full on bloodbath because of the mixed nature of what Baghdad is. It has Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Kurdish, Turkmen, Christians. And so they really worry that once that fight gets the capital, there's no way to stop it.

MONTAGNE: Leila, thanks very much.

FADEL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR Leila Fadel, speaking to us from Erbil, Iraq, in the northern Kurdish area of Iraq.

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