Emerging Alliances In Mosul Raise Tensions And Complications

Sunni militants were originally welcomed when they rolled into the Iraqi city of Mosul, but now there's a power struggle between the local tribes, Sunnis and Saddam Hussein's former Baathist party.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea in for Rachel Martin. The Iraqi government says it has recaptured the city of Tikrit in the first major counteroffensive against Sunni militant. Government gains come ahead of talks in the capital next week aimed at finding a political solution to a situation that threatens the collapse of Iraq.

The campaign to retake Tikrit is a high-stakes gamble by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reverse the momentum of ISIS militants. But NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Erbil that it's unlikely to end a crisis that began in the Iraqi city of Mosul and stems from Sunni grievances.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: When the militants of ISIS rolled into Mosul on June 10, they were the most public face of a wider Sunni uprising. ISIS was welcomed by Sunni residents, who cite a long list of abuses by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, on the streets, in the courts and in the prisons. The takeover of Iraq's largest northern city was coordinated by a coalition, says journalist Hiwa Osman, including violent Islamists, but also secular and socialist Sunni groups.

HIWA OSMAN: It's a mixture of everybody - between tribes, ISIS and former Baathists. It is really a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.

AMOS: The ugly - ISIS militants - came heavily armed. But it's the remnants of Saddam Hussein's socialist Baath party and Sunni tribes who want to run seized cities and towns. ISIS, they're the newcomers, he says.

OSMAN: ISIS was made yesterday, you know? And the Baath party has been there for almost half a century.

AMOS: Do you sense that there is an administration in Mosul that's forming?

OSMAN: They are trying. And in that trial-and-error process, we will see clashes between ISIS and the Baathists.

AMOS: Clashes have already begun. According to sources in and outside of Mosul, there's a power struggle between the former Baathists, who formed a military council headed by a formal general, and ISIS militants who insist on a radical version of Islamic rule. And they're building a network to enforce it, which sets the stage for a larger struggle to come.

The Kurds are trying to tip the balance against ISIS by opening channels with the other members of the Sunni coalition, says Dr. Noori Rathman. He heads the Kurds' Council of Ministers.

NOORI RATHMAN: Yes. Yes, we have contacts with them.

AMOS: So who are you talking to?

RATHMAN: There are different political groups there, and they are contacting us.

AMOS: ISIS is a danger, but the Kurds understand Sunni grievances. They also complain about the autocratic government in Baghdad.

RATHMAN: Everybody knows about what happened in Mosul and in Tikrit. It is an uprising. Why we should deny the reality of what's going on?

AMOS: A reality that complicates U.S. policy, says Ramzy Mardini, with the Atlantic Council.

RAMZY MARDINI: Without ISIS isolated from the larger insurgency, it's very difficult for the United States to implement anything of a military solution.

AMOS: So far, the U.S. has confirmed flying armed drones - protection for U.S. military personnel now in Baghdad. But there's no direct military role. Mardini says that would be taking sides in a political struggle - a fight that now threatens Sunnis in Baghdad.

MARDINI: What you're looking at is the prospect of cleansing throughout the entire city of Baghdad.

AMOS: In this park in central Erbil, I meet Haydar. He's recently arrived from the capital. He's a Sunni. He doesn't give his full name for fear of reprisals against his family.

HAYDAR: Really, there's nothing - just war in Baghdad.

AMOS: A pharmacist, he works for a private company and hopes to transfer his job here. Baghdad is no longer safe, he says.

HAYDAR: All the Sunnis in Baghdad are afraid. The militias of Shia are in the streets. And I'm afraid I can say it's a bloody future in Baghdad.

AMOS: He's trapped between Sunni militants and Shia militias who are fighting a zero-sum war. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Erbil.

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