LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Each day this week, MORNING EDITION will examine one aspect of our growing civil conflict in Iraq. Today, we'll ask about sectarian strife that appears to be driving the violence. A Sunni Islamist militants edge toward Baghdad, many are asking how much Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is to blame. His mainly Shia government has been criticized for worsening sectarian divisions, within his country. For more, we turn to Ned Parker. He is Baghdad's bureau chief for the Reuters News Agency and has reported extensively from Iraq, during Maliki's time in office. Good morning, Ted.
NED PARKER: Morning to you.
WERTHEIMER: Now, before we get to Prime Minister Maliki, could you tell us what is - what is it like in Baghdad today? What's the mood in the capital?
PARKER: Well, Baghdad has been quiet, since last Tuesday. People don't go out much. Yesterday, there was more traffic on the roads. But a colleague of mine was trying to go to the bank, this morning, to take out money, for his family. And the banks were crowded with worried citizens, trying to draw on their reserves. So everyone is in a state of shock and disbelief about life now and what's coming. Ordinary people are alarmed, scared, uncertain. They don't understand.
WERTHEIMER: Over the weekend, we saw thousands of volunteer fighters, mainly Shiites, following a call to arms from a major Shiite cleric. But as you reported, Maliki has been relying on these Shiite militias, in the face of this threat, for a while. Could you tell us about that?
PARKER: This emerged in full, since January, when we saw al-Qaida inspired groups and Sunni tribal fighters taking over territory around two cities in Anbar Province, to the west, both Ramadi and Fallujah. The Iraqi army, which has really had problems with poor morale, corruption, a lack of arms, poor maintenance of vehicles, was imploding. There were many desertions and deaths. And Prime Minister Miliki felt it made sense of use groups, such as the militia, Asaib al-Haq and Kata'ib Hezbollah, as volunteer fighters in Anbar embed in areas surrounding Baghdad. As he and others in the Iraqi Shiite political class became very worried that the Iraqi military could not hold back the al-Qaida groups from advancing on the capital.
WERTHEIMER: Now, the U.S. has been working closely with Maliki's government for a very long time. What is the state of that relationship?
PARKER: I think, in recent months, the United States became disenchanted with Prime Minister Maliki. They felt his policies were alienating large parts of the population. And if he had lost the last election, it would possibly be good for Iraq to have a change in leadership. But neither was the United States invested as it had been in the past, in kind of choosing the winners and losers in Iraq. So they've been a passive player in that.
WERTHEIMER: But now there are reports that Iranian forces are coming into the country to assist the Maliki government. What do we know about Maliki and the Iranians?
PARKER: I think, the Iranians are in many ways the Phantom of the Opera in Iraq. I think, what's realistic to say is that some of the groups fighting now, on the Iraqi side, that are considered affective, like Asaib al-Haq or Kata'ib Hezbollah. They've been trained by Iran. They've had Iranian advisors in the past. They recognize the supreme leader of Iran. Ali Khamenei is their religious guide. So it would make sense that those groups have some Iranian fighting advisors, on the ground.
WERTHEIMER: Ned Parker, can Iraq repair its sectarian divisions with Maliki still in the picture?
PARKER: I think anything's possible. I think Prime Minister Maliki is a survivor. I don't think he's - he's many things. He's an Iraqi nationalist. He's a Shiite Islamist. He wants to preserve the Shiite rule in Iraq, after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein. He wants to survive. So he makes his choices in the minute. He's a great tactician. He's very fluid in what he'll do. He'll want to protect the country's Shiite population. He'll want to maintain his rule. Those things do not mean that he can't heal the divide.
WERTHEIMER: Ned Parker is Baghdad Bureau Chief for Reuters. Ned, Thank you very much.
PARKER: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.