MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to start today by talking about the ongoing violence in Iraq. As you probably know, militants belonging to a radical Islamic group known as ISIS have captured some key cities throughout Iraq. ISIS stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the groups takeover of important cities, including Mosul, Tikrit and Tal Afar, are central to their goal of controlling Iraq's resources as well as territory. There's growing concern that this al-Qaida offshoot may be closing in on Iraq's capital city of Baghdad. The U.S. State Department has begun evacuating some personnel, and much of the debate in the U.S. is about what the U.S.'s role should be. But we wanted to know more about the group and about conditions in Iraq for the people who are caught in this latest turmoil. So we have called Farnaz Fassihi. She's the deputy Middle East bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. She spent years covering events in Iraq, and she's with us now from Beirut, Lebanon. Farnaz, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.
FARNAZ FASSIHI: Thank you, Michel. Good to be with you.
MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've also called Tariq Abu Khumra. He's an Iraqi living in the U.S.. He was an interpreter there for the U.S. military until he had to flee the country because of threats against his life. And he's with us now from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Tariq Abu Khumra, thank you so much for joining us as well.
TARIQ ABU KHUMRA: Thank you, Michel. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Farnaz, let me start with you. There are reports that the U.S. is considering engaging Iran on how to address the situation in Iraq. And I think everybody knows that the U.S. and Iran have a very tense relationship. So why would the two work together on this?
FASSIHI: Iran and the U.S. have a mutual interest in crushing al-Qaida movements in the region because they both view it as a security threat. I mean, Iran is a Shia government. The ISIS and al-Qaida offshoots are sworn enemies of Shia. So this is an existential threat for Iran. And the U.S. also does not want to see the legacy left behind in Iraq be tarnished by Islamist Sunni groups taking, you know, 14 percent or half of Iraq's territory and establishing a state. It could potentially also be a very destabilizing factor in the Middle East. So there is a common interest to make sure that the Iraqi government is able to survive and that stability is returned to Iraq.
MARTIN: Tariq, I think people knew that this group, ISIS, was operating in Syria. But I think it has been a shock to many people here, on this side of the water, that this group has been able to function so aggressively and ruthlessly in moving into Iraq. But I wanted to know, for the family you have in Iraq, was this something that was discussed? Was there concern, before the rest of us caught on to this, that this group was plotting some movement in Iraq?
ABU KHUMRA: Well, having militias in Iraq is not a new thing. And the presence of al-Qaida and such extremist group has been since 2004. So people were used to these kind of confrontations, especially in 2006, when the sectarian war began. But for now, you know, people have been in a pretty calm situation for a few years. And I think what happened is just the crisis in the military organization. The whole army that was supposed to stop these extremists just, you know, deserted. And everyone left his post. So I think that's why they controlled the city. It's not that they are new to here, but they did not have any resistance.
MARTIN: Had - to this point, had the Iraqi army gained the confidence of the population? Are your family members, those who've been there - are you surprised that they did desert their posts - that they did disappear?
ABU KHUMRA: Well, yes. People were surprised because it was so fast. It's not like, you know, they - few units left their post and then, like, it gradually happened. It's like all of a sudden, all the 85,000 - reportedly 85,000 soldiers - left their post. But I think it's a leadership problem because leadership is not acknowledging that there's a problem in this military organization. Corruption has been, you know, in this police and army forces for years. And people were indicating that. But the leadership is not really acknowledging the problem now. They're recruiting more volunteers because the Shia imams had this fatwa of, like, jihads. So they have to stop all of these extremists. So now they're recruiting just volunteers who are not trained, who are, you know, young guys, or...So I don't think it's going to fix the problem, actually, because if an army with all the equipment they had, and all the firepower - they couldn't stop those guys, or they fled, what would a few volunteers, or a few thousand volunteers do?
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Tariq Abu Khumra - he's a former translator for the U.S. military in Iraq - and Farnaz Fassihi, a journalist. And we're talking about the ongoing situation in Iraq. Farnaz, what - can you help us understand this? I mean, Tariq was just telling us that there have been militias in the country, you know, for years, really.
MARTIN: But now but this group seems - it's extremely - they seem very well organized. They seemed very directed. They seem to have had very clear kind of strategy. So that suggests that they're really functioning not so much as a militia but really kind of as an army. And so the question then becomes, is this - what is this about? Is the root of this the sectarian division, or is it something else?
FASSIHI: This group is indeed organized. It's perhaps the most extremist Sunni-Salafi movement in the region. But they did not act in isolation and out-of-pocket. The reason that they - that ISIS was able to gain so much territory in Iraq, as opposed to Syria, is because there is roots of sectarian division in Iraq because the Sunnis of Iraq, from the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion until the Shia-led government of Mr. Maliki, the Sunnis have been marginalized. They feel like they don't have a stake or a future in the current Iraqi political system - that together, with the threats of the militant groups...What happened with ISIS was that they were able to tap into this feeling of resentment. And they were able to get the support of Sunni tribes. They were able to get the support of Sunni residents of these cities and other militants, Sunni militant groups, that have been fighting in Iraq for a long time. In addition, a lot of the army soldiers, a lot of the members who fled their posts, were Sunnis. So it's merging into - it's shaping into, really, a Sunni factional war, not just ISIS against government.
MARTIN: Tariq, do we have any sense of what are the - in the cities where this group has now taken control, what are people's conditions there? Do you know whether people are able to get food? Are there basic, city sort of services functioning, like electricity and water? What do we know about that?
ABU KHUMRA: So it's - there are, like, conflicting information because I think, you know, there's not - there's no source of truth, in this case, for - at least that I know of. But I've been hearing that some people in Mosul actually are happier right now because they've been in - kind of living in a fortress for the past few years because of all that, you know - the army, and police checkpoints and people are really choked in their daily life. So now that these guys came in, and they have removed all of those posts and military - so people are feeling a little bit more freedom. However, this is not going to continue, for sure, because this group has always been very radical and extremist. And they have always noted that, you know, they're going to enforce Sharia law.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. Do you - what have they communicated to the people in these areas that they have taken over about their intentions? It's our understanding that they want to establish, you know, an Islamic state, as their name would imply, that would stretch from Iraq into northern Syria. We understand that there have been some summary executions, that they have singled out people who are associated with the police and the government. But as you've mentioned, that there is no source of truth...
ABU KHUMRA: Exactly.
MARTIN: Have they communicated their plans? Yeah...
ABU KHUMRA: Yeah. So I think the - there's an example, which is Syria. And we all know what happened. And they're going to do the exact same thing, which, when they enforce Sharia laws, that means that everyone who kind of contradicts them, or just crosses them, he will get killed or executed. And they will, you know - every woman has to wear all of the veils. And all of these things that we got used to in Syria, now going to happen again.
MARTIN: Farnaz, could I have some sort of final thoughts from you? What are some of the things that we should be looking at in the days ahead? What are the kinds of things that you're going to be following? People who want to keep following this story, what should we be paying attention to?
FASSIHI: I think we should be paying attention to the fact - to the massacres like we saw yesterday, reports of ISIS rounding up over 1,700 Shia young men from the air force and mass executing them. I think that, you know, the same threat could be reversed. I mean, there's a lot of Shia volunteer militia organizing. And they could very easily take revenge on innocent, Sunni civilians. So I think because of the history that Iraq has had in the past decade of sectarian war, we have to pay attention that this doesn't escalate into a, you know, neighbor-on-neighbor sort of, you know, man-on-man situation that we had in 2006, 2007. The politics of the region are also very interesting. You know, Iran and the U.S. are meeting under the umbrella of the nuclear talks in Vienna today. So it will be interesting to see if they will talk about Iraq and what sort of cooperation we'll see from that front.
MARTIN: Tariq, a final thought, if I may. I understand that you have some family visiting from Iraq at the moment. Are they able to stay and - until the situation becomes more stable, or will they be required to go back into this chaotic circumstance?
ABU KHUMRA: So yes, I have my parents visiting. And actually, my sister here is on a student visa as well. But, you know, for now I can't send them back because of all the situation. And the problem is that the situation is not going to, you know - it's kind of irreversible. I think we are getting back to the sectarian war again, especially after these fatwas. So I'm going to try to keep them as much as I can, and we'll see what happens.
MARTIN: Tariq Abu Khumra is an Iraqi who used to work as a translator for the United States military in Iraq. And he was kind enough to join us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Farnaz Fassihi is the the deputy Middle East editor for The Wall Street Journal. We reached her in Beirut. Thank you so much, both of you, for your insights today.
FASSIHI: Thank you for having us.
ABU KHUMRA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.