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Analysis: Baghdad Braced for ISIS Assault as Militants Hover

NBC News' Richard Engel reports that Baghdad it feels like a city that has drawn its knives and cocked its guns and is ready for a fight.
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News Analysis

BAGHDAD — This doesn't feel like a city about to fall.

I was in Baghdad when it fell to U.S. troops in 2003. In the days before the assault, Iraqis were rushing to convert their dinars into any hard currency they could get their hands on. They were packing their furniture into trucks and driving it out of the city. They were moving their families to stay with relatives outside the capital.

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Iraqis were taping up their windows. I taped up my windows, too. We all knew that bombs would soon be falling and that the U.S. military drops big bombs.

It doesn’t feel like that in Baghdad now. Instead, it feels like the city has drawn its knives and cocked its guns and is ready for a fight.

Militants from Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a fanatical Sunni group that sees itself as the new and improved Al-Qaeda, are less than 60 miles from the capital. The militants have taken Mosul in the north and on Monday took Tal Afar, near the Syrian border. They’ve executed dozens and perhaps hundreds of Iraqi troops.

ISIS says it wants to destroy the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, describing them in statements and videos as “filth” that must be disposed of. It says it wants to come to Baghdad to “settle scores.” Baghdad got the message. This is the capital of the Shiite-led government. This is the seat of power that Shiites in Iraq have longed for since they lost control of Mesopotamia to Sunnis in the 8th century. Thanks to the U.S. invasion, the Shiites have it now. They have no intention of giving it up again.

In Baghdad on Monday Iraqi troops mobilized on nearly every corner. They’ve taken out the armored vehicles and 50-caliber machine guns that U.S. troops taught them how to use. The weapons are positioned by the airport and in front of nearly every government building. Police are searching cars at checkpoints that seem to be everywhere. Intelligence agents check I.D. papers. They want to know who’s moving on the streets, which were mostly empty.

Shiite militias patrolled the downtown shopping district in a convoy of taxis. They drove fast, forcing other cars aside as they passed, assault rifles pointed out the windows. Other Shiite militias patrol other neighborhoods. They’ve divided up Baghdad into zones like neighborhood watch groups.

The Shiite religious authority issued a fatwa, or a religious edict, saying that it is an obligation to for “people who are capable of carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defense of their country” to join the security forces. Some Iraqi troops aren’t willing to fight for their government. But many Shiites appear willing to fight for their religious leaders.

If ISIS tried to move on Baghdad now, there would be big battles, but an all-out assault on the capital would likely fail. Instead, Iraqis expect the militants will try to soften the capital with car bombs, suicide vests and assassinations.

The militants from ISIS — whose charge seemed ferocious and unstoppable a few days ago — may have missed their opportunity to march on the city. Iraqi Shiites awoke and now they have their knives, guns and U.S.-trained army at the ready.