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And I'm Renee Montagne. For more than a billion Muslims around the world, the holy month of Ramadan is now underway. Over the next four weeks, Muslims will abstain from food and drink from dawn until dusk, at which point the fast is traditionally broken with an elaborate meal followed by lots of tea and sweets. For many in Iraq, this year's Ramadan will be a bleak one. Extremists have taken over much of the country and show no sign of easing the fighting, even with the arrival of the holy month. NPR's Alice Fordham reports from Baghdad on a subdued celebration.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In Abu Afif candy store the cooks are hard at work layering paper-thin pastry, drenching it in rose petal syrup and sprinkling chopped pistachios over wide, steel dishes of their famous baklava.
NAS JANI: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: We are coming to shop as Ramadan has arrived, says Nas Jani, stocking up on pounds of the pastries. There's also rainbow-colored candy and cherry-topped cakes but not many buyers. One customer, Mohammad Ali, reckons people have been afraid to shop since Sunni extremists took control of much of Iraq and vowed Baghdad would be next.
MOHAMMAD ALI: This situation in the country, this time is not good for everyone.
FORDHAM: In recent years of relative calm, Baghdadis have spent the warm Ramadan nights out in parks, malls, newly opened fairgrounds. Ali says that's changed.
ALI: All of us stay in the home in the evening, but before we going shopping and coffee shop with our friends, going everywhere, restaurant, at the night. But now, no.
FORDHAM: Nice to meet you. How are you?
ABBAS KARIM: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: Usually people buy new clothes during Ramadan, too. But across the street, Abbas Karim is watching music videos in his elegant and very empty gentleman's outfitters.
KARIM: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: It's a wartime situation, he says. Business is down to 5 percent of what it was, and people are saving their money for an emergency, the emergency so many people in Baghdad are afraid of since long-standing sectarian tensions flared this month and Sunni militants took over much of the North and West of the country. They're led by the extremist group known until recently as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS. In a dramatic Ramadan statement yesterday, the group rebranded as just the Islamic State and declared authority over all Muslims worldwide. They plan to take Baghdad and are thought to have infiltrated territory around the city. Aymenn Al-Tamimi is an analyst at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum. He thinks the militants will push forward through Ramadan.
AYMENN AL-TAMIMI: I don't really think, in terms of fighting, ISIS ever really lets down during Ramadan. I think just things continue as they are actually, at least from what I have observed in the past during ISIS operations in Iraq during the month of Ramadan.
FORDHAM: Flush with money and weapons captured in Iraq, the group could push further into their territory across the border in Syria. Activists in the crucial Syrian city of Aleppo fear an onslaught. The extremists may even have a religious imperative to fight harder; many Islamic scholars believe that those killed in battle during Ramadan are particularly blessed. The analyst Tamimi thinks the Sunni militants will also use the sacred month to shore up support in the areas they control. Even last Ramadan, the group was powerful in Syria, and as well as fighting, its members put on Quran-reciting competitions and distributed Teletubby toys to children. In the sweetshop, Mohammed Ali says he wishes Ramadan would bring the sects together, not push them apart. In Ramadan, Sunnis and Shiites all break the fast at sunset.
ALI: All the people break the same time and the praying at the same time. This will make us one union and heart to heart, not difference for us.
FORDHAM: He says war makes Iraqis weak, but he hopes Ramadan could make them strong again. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad.