SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Sunni fighters have seized a border post on the Iraq-Syria frontier this morning making it the first official border gate in Iraq controlled by militants. If these fighters are indeed part of ISIS, this brings them one step closer to creating an Islamic caliphate that extends from the Mediterranean Sea to Iran.
NPR's Alice Fordham is in the capital, Baghdad, which has been home to both Sunnis and Shiites. Alice, thanks for being with us.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: You're welcome.
SIMON: And what have you heard about this?
FORDHAM: Right. Well, as you say, today, there has been both a significant gain by Sunni-led militant. And interestingly, there has been a big show of force by Shiite-led militants here in Baghdad.
So to take you first to the West of Iraq, which is a place where Sunni militants led by the extremist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria have been strong for some time. We've received word from security forces that they have taken a border town with Syria, called Qa'im, after fierce fighting, and there's still fighting going on on the outskirts. It's a strategic place, but it is also very significant because there's a strong and growing presence by the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria on the other side of the border in Syria. This could enable arms and fighters to flow more easily from Syria into Iraq. As you say, moving towards the goal of this group, which is to create a unified Sunni Islamic state in this territory.
SIMON: In recent days, you've had Shiite leaders in Iraq ask for volunteers to join the fight against Islamic militants. How would you describe what's going on in those areas?
FORDHAM: People were initially, I think, very frightened by the big push of these Sunni forces into significant parts of Iraq. But in a way, that fear has now been kind of distilled into a defiance and an aggression.
And I was in Sadr City, which is a big Shiite area of Baghdad today. And what's happened there is that thousands of volunteers have responded to a call to rejoin what was known as the Mahdi Army militia, which was crucially important during Iraq's civil war, which went from 2006 to 2008. And these people see themselves as stepping forward to defend particularly holy Shiite parts of the country against this Sunni onslaught. It was fascinating being out there today. It was very impressive. There is a lot of people there, but it certainly wasn't organized. There were people marching in mismatched uniforms, people marching in white shrouds to symbolize that they want to be martyrs. They want to die for their beliefs. So there is a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of fear. And frankly, the whole situation is a bit frightening.
SIMON: Alice, how does all of that translate to the feelings that Baghdadis have about Prime Minister Al-Maliki because certainly in the United States, a lot of people are leveling a finger at him for permitting sectarian problems to fester and calling on him to make some kind of accommodation in his government?
FORDHAM: Exactly. And I think it's a very fair comment to say that the problems that exist in Iraq, the support that these extremist groups have gained from the Sunni population wouldn't have happened had the Sunnis not felt so marginalized by Maliki's eight years in power. You know, Maliki is a Shiite, and a lot of these people feel very discriminated against by him. And you'll speak to a lot of people in Baghdad and in other parts of Iraq who do blame him for what's happened. However, I would say that the situation in Iraq has been very problematic at least for the last six months. Sunni militants have had control of the western province of Anbar. And often, Maliki has been able to manipulate that situation so that people feel threatened, and they turn to him, they see him as a strong leader. So he's not going anywhere yet.
SIMON: NPR's Alice Fordham in Baghdad. Thanks so much.
FORDHAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.