On Baghdad’s doorstep: Islamic State militants gain ground in Iraq

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack that killed 23 people in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad. Judy Woodruff speaks with Ned Parker of Reuters about the militants’ long approach toward the capital, as well as fresh sectarian strife despite hope that a new prime minister would help pull the country together.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As we reported earlier, President Obama met with the defense ministers of 20 nations this afternoon to figure out how best to stop the Islamic State group. Despite coalition efforts, the militants continue to push ahead and make further gains in some areas.

    Tonight, we take a closer look at where I.S. is in control and what areas they are threatening.

    Ned Parker is the bureau chief with the Reuters news agency in Baghdad, where earlier today 23 people were killed in a suicide bombing in a Shiite neighborhood. I spoke to him a short time ago.

    Ned Parker, welcome.

    First of all, what is known about who was behind this suicide bombing?

  • NED PARKER, Reuters:

    Well, the attack has been claimed by the Islamic State on Twitter.

    They say it was a deliberate strike on the Shiite area of Kadhimiya to assassinate a member of parliament, a Shiite parliamentary member named Ahmed Khafaji, who also had been a deputy interior minister in the past.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What is the feeling there in Baghdad? What do people say when you talk to them? Is there a sense that Islamic State is right on the edge of the city?

  • NED PARKER:

    Well, I think what one has to realize is that even before Mosul, the city, was surrounded, and at the very beginning of the year, wars started in Anbar and Fallujah, so that immediately brought the war to the edges of Baghdad, what we refer to as the Baghdad belt.

    So even in April, you had the Islamic State in the area of Abu Ghraib that's outside of the airport. So the city has been under siege, if you will, for some time, a loose siege, but definitely there's been a battle going on pitting security forces and militias against the Islamic State.

    What maybe is different now is that the state of play since Mosul fell in June has really been a stalemate. And the Islamic State has been able to consolidate ground, despite U.S. airstrikes in parts of the north. And in Western Anbar province in the last month, we have seen the Islamic State have a series of victories in the Euphrates River Valley.

    All of this perhaps is allowing the Islamic State to lose more of its fighters around, and even in the summertime in July, there was always talk of sleeper cells in Baghdad that could potentially carry out an attack, seize a Sunni neighborhood.

    So all of that has been here and continues to be, even though there has been U.S. airstrikes. And that leaves Iraqis feeling frustrated, worried about the future and genuinely scared. But it isn't because suddenly the Islamic State is at the doorstep. They have been at the doorstep for many months.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, overall, the sense is that the Islamic State is growing in its presence and the territory it holds in the country?

  • NED PARKER:

    Right now, there is this — a new sense of alarm or panic.

    But when you look at it, the biggest change in the battlefield in terms of momentum is Anbar province, where you're seeing towns fall and where potentially you could soon have the Islamic State having the border of Qaim all the way to Ramadi.

    Now, if that happens, it really gives them a muscle and a corridor all the way from Syria to Baghdad's doorstep. It will really allow them to mobilize their foot soldiers and have a real propaganda victory. Maybe that changes things more, but I think the point, the point is there were suicide bombings in Iraq last December, last spring.

    The security situation has been unraveling for some time, and really the Islamic State has been surrounding the province of Baghdad for seven or eight months. And right now, it's a time where people feel uncertain in par because the Islamic State is not going away. It's not disappearing and the efficiency of the U.S. airstrikes is limited just by the fact that the advisers who are calling in the strikes are limited in the Green Zone in Baghdad and in Irbil.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, just finally, what happened, Ned Parker, to the sense when the new prime minister was named, Mr. Abadi, that he was going to pull the country together, that there was going to be less sectarian strife?

    Because, meanwhile, we're hearing about Shiite militias attacking Sunnis across the country, while at the same time Islamic State is wreaking the havoc you're describing.

  • NED PARKER:

    Prime Minister Abadi came in at a moment when really all control on the ground by the government was lost.

    Mosul, the fall of Mosul shattered the idea that the state could enforce any form of law and order. And the state that he inherited is a very corrupt one. It lacks efficiency. And when you look at the ground, Sunni areas are not controlled by their politicians who are in government. And many Sunnis are still playing it on the fence, because when they look at Baghdad, they say, well, the government for the last four years, we found it oppressive. Militias are out now fighting alongside the Iraqi army. So, what is better, the Islamic State or the militias and this weak government?

    And for Prime Minister Abadi, for him to suddenly wave a magic wand in the middle of a hurricane, it's impossible to expect that suddenly he could reverse things that are so entrenched on the ground. It's a very tough job.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A long way to go and a tough job indeed.

    Ned Parker, we thank you very much.

  • NED PARKER:

    Thank you. Great being with you.

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