This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Iraq is slipping further into chaos. Since Friday, the Sunni extremist group ISIS has captured several more towns, including two crucial border crossings with Syria. We'll talk more in a moment about what control of those crossings means for ISIS. Some are blaming the situation on Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. They say that in the eight years of rule, he stoked the sectarian tensions that have now flared. In recent days, President Obama has hardened his tone toward Maliki, leading many to wonder whether he'll be forced out. NPR's Alice Fordham reports from Baghdad.


ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: One, two, three, Mahdi, chant these men with mismatched uniforms, dress shoes and assorted weapons. The men invoke a figure from Shiite Muslim prophecies, the Mahdi, as they march past. This parade is in Sadr City, a Shiite suburb of Baghdad. And these tens of thousands of men are responding to a call to arms.

HAZEM AL-SHEMMARI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: We volunteer to protect our dear Iraq, says Hazem al-Shemmari as he passes. When Sunni militants took over parts of Iraq this month, Shiite religious leaders called for volunteers to fight back. Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki, who is a devout Shiite, gave speeches supporting the volunteers. But many of them, like Ali Abu Mutawa, say they don't like him.

ALI ABU MUTAWA: (Through translator) No, I don't believe in him. His misguided policies dragged the country into this situation.

FORDHAM: Once, Maliki boasted that he brought stability to Iraq. But as the country looks more like a Sunni versus Shiite battlefield, many blame him. Some also hold the United States responsible for supporting him so long, like Osama Hussein, another militiaman.

OSAMA HUSSEIN: (Through translator) He was created by America. And they have allowed him to fail through eight years and were satisfied with his work in Iraq - economic failure, security failure.

FORDHAM: That American support doesn't seem as solid now. President Obama says that Maliki faces a test - that he has to be more inclusive. In doing so, Obama recognizes the resentment of Iraq's large Sunni minority. Many of them say Maliki behaves like a dictator. He's sectarian, and he's marginalized them, like Mahmoud al-Jabbouri, a Sunni who runs a corner store.

MAHMOUD AL-JABBOURI: (Through translator) Sure, sure, 100 percent. It's obvious. He neglects the other side, the other sect. This is what makes him a tyrant.

FORDHAM: Jabbouri was an officer in Saddam Hussein's army before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Now he's a shopkeeper because, he says, Sunnis can't get decent jobs. He says some of his friends saw no option but to join forces with the extremists known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. And some politicians speculate that Maliki may not be able to keep the support he needs to retain his position. And there's no obvious successor who could unify Iraq. Even a politician in Maliki's coalition says that the country can't carry on the way it did before. Haider al-Abadi thinks a new prime minister might be good.

HAIDER AL-ABADI: If they can't agree, let us start fresh with a new faces, so that we can fight this evil, then I think that's good.

FORDHAM: But there are other factors, including Iran, which is highly influential in Iraq's politics. And Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei fiercely condemns American interference in Iraq, which could outweigh that American pressure on Maliki. And despite opposition to Nouri al-Maliki, he may end up staying. The lawmaker Haider al-Abadi says this is no time for squabbling. Iraq is fighting for survival. Alice Fordham. NPR News, Baghdad.

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