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In Iraq, Shiites Take Up Arms Against Sunni Militants


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. You know, years ago I was talking with a man in Baghdad. It was amid the chaos and the warfare following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. And the Iraqi man said it took us 35 years to get this way and it will take 35 years to change.

MONTAGNE: For a while it seemed like Iraq might get away with a mere decade of brutal transition. But now, Iraq shows signs of marching back to sectarian war. Sunni extremists led by the militant group, ISIS, hold much of the North and West.

INSKEEP: Shiites are taking up arms by the thousands. NPR's Alice Fordham reports from Baghdad.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Unlike most people in Baghdad, Amer Salman the tailor is having a good week. A tape measure around his neck, his sewing machine turns neat corners on one of 200 new military uniforms he sold to men volunteering to fight against the Sunni militants who have seized large parts of Iraq.

AMER SALMAN: (Through translator) The guys who come in - they're all very enthusiastic.

FORDHAM: Those volunteers have heeded the call of Shiite religious leaders to defend the country against fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS.

SALMAN: (Through translator) They say, we're going to be martyrs fighting for our country, fighting for the sake of Iraq.

FORDHAM: Some of these men have joined the Army but tens of thousands have signed up with Shiite militia groups - the same groups that killed Sunnis during sectarian war five years ago. All across Baghdad, you can see these guys having military parades, setting up checkpoints. Many people are reminded of the death squads in those dark days. Now, the militia's operating alongside the security forces. In a rough cinderblock neighborhood across town, I meet Hussein al Saidi, a fighter just back to his family after fighting in the ISIS stronghold of Fallujah, about an hour's drive away. He is with Asaib al Haq, a Shiite militia feared by many Sunnis and supported by Iran. The group's name means brigades of the righteous.

HUSSEIN AL SAIDI: (Through translator) Right now, the time is for fighting, so we are fighting.

FORDHAM: Saidi says there are maybe 4,000 volunteers with Asaib al Haq fighting in Fallujah and more elsewhere. They fight and train with fellow Shiite militias - the Mehdi Army, the Badr Brigade - and they coordinate with the Army but they don't follow anyone else's orders. Despite this autonomy, Saidi says Asaib al Haq see themselves as part of Iraq's armed forces.

SAIDI: (Through translator) There is coordination. There's a commanding operation there. And we consider ourselves their supporters.

FORDHAM: Saidi's got seven brothers - four in the Army and the rest in various Shiite militias. It's all the same fight, he says. These blurred lines between security forces and Shiite militias scare Sunni civilians. However, Asaib al Haq say they've changed. Saidi, the fighter, concedes that there used to be some bad element to target civilians. He says now they're more disciplined and above board. They have a political wing, a member of parliament and an office in a somewhat nice part of Baghdad, where I meet Ahmed Kinani, a spokesman.

AHMED KINANI: (Through translator) The Sunnis are our dearest brothers - partners in this country, not enemies.

FORDHAM: He said the Shiite militias have been deployed around Baghdad for months and he makes it clear they're not going anywhere. He says, now's the time to stand side-by-side to protect Iraq from evil. But for many Sunnis, that still sounds like a threat. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.