Militias Around Baghdad Defend Against Islamic State Militants

Fears that the militant Sunni group would advance on the capital have receded, but communities close to the city remain nervous and armed. NPR's Arun Rath talks to The Guardian's Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who was recently embedded with Iraqi Shiite militias around Baghdad.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Shifting our attention from northern Iraq, it's been weeks since ISIS took controls of suburbs of Baghdad. At the time, they steamrolled Iraqi soldiers, many of whom fled rather than fight. Back in June, a lot of people were worried the militants were going to take Baghdad but that hasn't happen so far. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is Middle East correspondent for the Guardian newspaper. He's just returned from Iraq where he spent two weeks embedded which Shiite militias some of which sprung into action to defend areas around Baghdad. He joins me via Skype from Istanbul. Welcome to the program, Ghaith.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Hi, thank you for having me.

RATH: So first off, can you tell us where you were in Iraq and who you were embedded with?

ABDUL-AHAD: Well, Arun, I traveled north and south of Baghdad to the two new areas of confrontations that's kind of developing the new boundaries of the state, if you like. The first one is in the Eliah (Ph) Province around 60, 70 kilometers north of Baghdad and the other is the southern edge of the city, basically. The two places are very mixed Sunni Shiite areas. So in both areas this is where you have the worst civil war in the last bout of fighting - 2007, 2006 - and this is where the new frontlines are emerging.

RATH: And what are the goals of the militias, is it to protect Baghdad or are they working with Iraqi forcers, Iraqi regulars?

ABDUL-AHAD: Well, sensibly they tell you we are here to protect Baghdad to stop ISIS attacking Baghdad but the pattern developing in both areas you see kind of trenches being built between the two communities - between Sunni and Shiite militias which is absurd because you pass from Sunni to Shiite to than others Sunni to Shiite and other. So building bombs and digging trenches is a really absurd kind of first world war fortifications in the middle of very intermixed communities. This is a potential, you know, really bad massacre is going to happen in these places. For them, every Sunni is a potential threat. The last day when I was there I was driving back to Baghdad and I saw, you know, dead bodies hanging from a lamp post in the center of Baquba. Now, the people of Baquba say these are, you know, foreign fighters, you know, ISIS fighters captured and killed but Sunnis say those are normal Sunnis kidnapped from their houses. So this is the fault lines that's developing south of Baghdad.

RATH: And what has relationship been with these malicious and obviously with the Sunni populations it's not good - but the other citizens that they say they're protecting how are they getting along with them?

ABDUL-AHAD: Well, to be honest, if you are Shia and you live in (Unintelligible) and you've seen the last rounds of civil war in 2006 and 2007 you would really welcome the presence of this militias. The military is totally subservient to the militias. I went to one of the front lines and there you see the military basically taking command from the militia men.

RATH: Ghaith, The last time we spoke you were very pessimistic about the violence in Iraq spiraling into a full-on sectarian war, right now though a fairly diverse coalition seems, in some way, to be rallying against Isis. Do you think the risk of sectarianism has decreased or is the same?

ABDUL-AHAD: You know, I may call a Shiite politician from one of the really religious Shia parties who was saying you now have, apart from the tens of thousands of Sunni militants fighting, you have tens of thousands of Shia who have all been radicalized and equipped and armed. He was asking the question where do you think those people go into three years times? So he's not only think about the conflict evolving in Iraq but actually those militants will be exported to other places like the Sunni jihadists. I think we'll see the same thing happen on the Shia side - those - the people when they stop fighting, when they organize into militia, they don't disappear when the fighting is over. So I'm afraid I'm still pessimistic.

RATH: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is Middle East correspondent for the Guardian newspaper. He's just back from two weeks with Shia militia men. Ghaith, thank you so much.

ABDUL-AHAD: Thank you.

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