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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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

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And I'm Audie Cornish. Iraq is looking increasingly like a state partitioned along sectarian lines. Shiites have the south. Sunni militants have grabbed much of the North and West with support from local Sunnis who are angry about abuse by the central government. NPR's Alice Fordham has been talking to Sunni tribal leaders and reports it's difficult to see a way to put Iraq back together again.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In Baghdad, the Sunni suburb of Dora seems bustling. Bus drivers holler out destinations while women buy vegetables and kids play football. Sheikh Abu Ali al Jubbouri, rotund and exuberant, welcomes me with mango juice. But when he starts to talk, he says that at night everything changes. Shiite militias now roam the streets.

ABU ALI AL JUBBOURI: (Through translator) They come with government cars and different types of weapons, especially after midnight. When they see any gathering of youth, they take them all with them.

FORDHAM: After Sunni militants seized territory across Iraq, political and religious leaders essentially gave carte blanche to Shiite militias to fight back. And though Jubbouri is a leader in a powerful tribe, he says that like most Sunnis in Baghdad, he now lives in fear.

JUBBOURI: (Through translator) It has increased in the last two weeks and they have snap checkpoints - checking people's IDs.

FORDHAM: Chatting to Jubbouri, it seems he shares the viewpoint of many Sunnis. He misses Saddam Hussein, who favored Sunnis. He thinks Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has marginalized the sect. And he sees Iraq security forces as one big Shiite militia. As for the takeover of Sunni parts of Iraq, he's cheering on his relatives who are fighting tribal forces alongside extremist militants.

PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI: (Through translator) Yes, I feel pride and every native Iraqi should feel the same.

FORDHAM: The fact that he is proud that his people are fighting the government underlines a big part of Iraq's problem. The extremists known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, are the tip of the spear in seizing territory. But they're supported by a lot of ordinary Sunnis and powerful tribes who hate the Shiite-led government. Zaid al Ali, who recently published a book on Iraq's government, has been speaking with people in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

ZAID AL ALI: I think it's important for people to realize how bad the partition's already become. I mean, some people are talking about a possible partition. But on the ground, there is a partition. It's already there. Maybe legally it's not recognized, but if you live in Tikrit today, in order to get to Erbil - which is another city that's in Iraq -you have to go through two border crossings.

FORDHAM: Ali adds that people in Tikrit are nervous about ISIS, but relieved that the security forces have left. People there say soldiers imprisoned and tortured their relatives. These Sunni parts of Iraq won't be won back by fighting alone. The government in Baghdad will have to win over popular opinion. Ali says Prime Minister Maliki must resign.

ALI: Maliki, now today, has a particularly bad record because he has concentrated power in his hands - particularly over the last four years. And he has broken promise after promise after promise. If it's someone else - in fact, just about anyone else - anyone else would have more of a chance of being believed than Maliki.

FORDHAM: Thus far, there is little sign of Maliki stepping down or of reconciliation. In a speech today, he rejected the idea even of a national unity government with representatives from all sides to deal with the emergency. Sheikhs from some big Sunni tribes say they don't want ISIS in charge in the long-term, but tribal leaders, like Sheikh Ali Hatem, say they won't lift a finger to get rid of ISIS until Maliki's gone.

ALI HATEM: (Through translator) ISIS is not a big problem. We will postpone our fight with them. Our first priority is to get rid of Maliki and his militias and regain the rights of the Sunnis. The fight with ISIS will come later.

FORDHAM: In an interview in the northern city of Erbil, Hatem says that the tribes could get rid of ISIS in days if Iraq's Sunnis are given jobs and treated fairly. He is confident that now there's a crisis here, he'll get his way.

HATEM: (Through translator) I think Iraq is more important than Maliki. I think America knows the matter is serious so it's not in the interest of the United States and the Shia parties to keep Maliki in power. Everyone is aware it doesn't make sense that America and the world would sacrifice Iraq for the sake of Maliki.

FORDHAM: Whether a tribal offensive could oust ISIS remains to be seen. But international observers agree Iraq's army has no capacity to push back the loose Sunni alliance now dominating so much territory. Under de facto sectarian, partition is rapidly becoming the norm. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad.

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