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Taking Back An Iraqi Territory From ISIS Control


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer. We have been following the news from Iraq where the U.S.-led coalition has stepped up airstrikes in the last few days to help Iraqi forces reclaim a key city from ISIS. In Ramadi, just west of the capital Baghdad, ISIS has been in control for months. But now the Iraqi army and its allies are battling in the city center to take it back. NPR's Alice Fordham is following the battle from Beirut. She joins us now. Alice, good morning.


WERTHEIMER: What's the latest?

FORDHAM: Well, as you say, Linda, there's been heavy fighting for several days now to retake that city center. The state media is reporting today that there's maybe 100, 150 ISIS fighters left down from maybe 1,000 a few weeks ago. But the tactics that they use there - they have tunnels, they are able to use suicide attackers, they have snipers - there's a tactic that we've seen them use over and over again in towns and cities that they've taken where they rig buildings with booby traps, they place mines. So that's all slowing progress. I think it's probably fair to say that things are not progressing as fast as the Iraqi security forces initially said that they would. But the Americans there who lead the coalition, which is allied with the Iraqi security forces, the Americans in particular were a bit more cautious. They said it could take days more or even a bit longer than that.

WERTHEIMER: ISIS made a lot of gains in Iraq this past year, so just how important is the battle to take Ramadi away from them?

FORDHAM: Well, it does matter. As you said, it is close to Baghdad. It's a provincial capital. And when it was taken, a stream of hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, many of whom are now living in difficult circumstances, relying on charities or on the state to help them. But if it is retaken, it's important to remember that actually only takes us back to where we were in May. Ramadi actually fell rather unexpectedly when the counteroffensive against ISIS, supported by the U.S.-led coalition, that was meant to be in full swing. So the Iraqi government and its allies say that after they've taken back Ramadi, they plan to move on other cities, like Fallujah and Mosul, that ISIS hold. But ISIS is entrenched in those places. They have been running Fallujah for two years now. And I was able to speak to people this year who described a flawed system but a highly structured and organized one in the city of Mosul. So retaking Ramadi would be a step in the fight back against ISIS but a small step in a long journey.

WERTHEIMER: Does ISIS have real local support like young Iraqi recruits or just support in the sense that Iraqis in these cities are terrified to challenge ISIS?

FORDHAM: It's very hard to say because one of ISIS's strengths is that they control information and they control the media, the images and the voices that we have coming out of the places that they control. Very occasionally over the last year, I've got the chance to talk to people who are inside ISIS areas or who have recently left. And what they say bears out - what seemed to be the case actually when ISIS took the Iraqi city of Mosul last year - that there is still significant anger with the central government in Baghdad, which seen as sectarian and corrupt. And a lot of these people in ISIS-held areas are Sunnis and they see that the government there is not supporting them. At the same time, the ISIS-held areas aren't being run perfectly. People complain about heavy taxes and bad services. And a lot of people are, of course, horrified by the brutality and scared about what their children are learning at ISIS-run schools. And yet, Linda, there's still a feeling that the central government in Baghdad isn't offering an alternative. It hasn't tried hard enough to show that if ISIS leaves their cities, the Iraqi government will be fair in their treatment of Sunni citizens in places like Mosul.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Alice Fordham reporting on ISIS in Iraq. Thank you very much, Alice.

FORDHAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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