ARUN RATH, HOST:
The phrase Civil War is starting to pop up more and more when it comes to Iraq. Large swaths of the country are held by militants led by the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria - or ISIS. Today government forces began an offensive to retake the northern cities of Mosul and Tikrit.
The United States has dispatched military advisers and deployed drones to patrol the skies over Iraq. But the Obama administration seems far from confident in either Iraq's army or its politicians. Some fear the militants could achieve their stated goal - to take Baghdad and set up an Islamic state that stretches across Iraq and Syria. NPR's Alice Fordham is in Baghdad and joins us from a rooftop overlooking the city. Alice, what's it like in Baghdad now?
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In Baghdad - is in a kind of freaked out limbo. A lot more shops are closed than usual. It gets quiet really quickly at night. It's actually less violent than usual.
We haven't seen the car bombings that became part of life here in recent months, perhaps, because the people who were doing those car bombs are kind of busy taking over the country. And what's driving this atmosphere of fear here is a feeling that the Sunni militants will take a lot of territory around the capital and then move in a coordinated way once the escape routes are cut off.
RATH: And when it comes to that, how much progress are the insurgents making? Are they likely to be able to take Baghdad?
FORDHAM: Well, they were initially moving far and they were moving fast. That has slowed down. And the Iraqi army, which is backed now by a rather odd collection of supporters - Iranian aid, irregular Shiite militias, shortly, as you said, to be bolstered by U.S. advisors. The Iraqi Army seems to have made a few gains. They pushed back against these insurgents in the town of Tikrit. They're still holding some of the important oil refinery at Baiji.
But we're hearing worrying reports of Sunni-led violence just south of Baghdad. And just as worrying, Shiite retaliation, which could lead to the escalating cycle of violence we saw in the worst days of the Civil War. So if you take, for example, there was a mixed area called Mahmoudiyah, where there was a bombing, which was blamed on Sunni insurgents. The people around there tell us that the next day, Shiite militias showed up and took away Sunni civilians.
I can't confirm the details of this. But if it's true, that's the kind of thing that creates sympathy on the Sunni side for these bomb makers. So no, I don't think they'll take the whole of Baghdad. The areas they have taken so far have been Sunni majority. They've had some support there, and Baghdad is mostly Shiite. But they could make life really miserable here.
RATH: And what tactics is ISIS using in the territory they're holding?
FORDHAM: Well, it's really interesting because it's kind of contradictory. So we know from their history, and Syria next door, that this is a group with an extreme, brutal interpretation of Islamic law. And in Mosul, a city that they took, they distributed a charter, which insisted that stealing be punished by amputation, that false idols be destroyed. There's been detailed allegations of some mass killings.
But with all these caveats, there's definitely an attempt to win over the local population and not impose the harshest forms of this law, you know. They're paying salaries. They're distributing cooking gas. I heard they allowed a Shiite woman to continue running the university in Tikrit. They haven't even banned smoking.
RATH: Why - why not? Because it really seems like that's a kind of tolerance that we don't associate with ISIS?
FORDHAM: Well, they've taken a lot of territory really fast. And to do that, they've relied on support from local tribes, old Saddam Hussein supporters, various Islamists. They can't alienate these people at this point until they really have a firm hold on territory.
RATH: NPR Middle East correspondent Alice Fordham. Alice, thank you.
FORDHAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.