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Iraqis Again Try To Take Back Fallujah From ISIS


And I'm Steve Inskeep with an update on Iraq's offensive to retake Fallujah. That city has been fought over for more than a dozen years. U.S. forces captured it in 2003, only to see a new Iraqi government lose control. The U.S. had to take it again, after which in recent years Iraq's government lost control again to ISIS. Tim Arango, Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times, is tracking the latest effort to retake the city. Hi Tim.

TIM ARANGO: Hi, Steve. Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: Glad you're with us from Baghdad. What were you able to see in the last day or two?

ARANGO: Well, yesterday, we made a trip out to the areas around Fallujah, where they've been pressing this offensive on the city. And we spoke to some of the commanders and some of the soldiers there. What struck me was how much of an operation this is that's led by the militias. And there were some federal police there.

They've taken up lots of positions around the city and our pounding it with artillery and rockets and all manner of things and waiting for the counterterror forces to actually come in and assault the city itself.

INSKEEP: Help us understand this. You say the militias. You mean not the formal Iraqi army would be in the lead here, right?

ARANGO: Absolutely. It really struck me yesterday when I finally got out there was just to not see any army, at least in the areas we were in. It was mostly militias. Some of these - there's a huge group. They're called the Popular Mobilization forces. Some of them are long-standing militias that are controlled by Iran. And others are new units that are more loyal to the Iraqi government that sprang up after the ISIS offensive in 2014.

INSKEEP: How organized are they?

ARANGO: The moral is great. I wouldn't say that they are as organized as the - as the American military, but they are making gains and they're communicating. And so far, they've had some successes there in clearing the areas around the city.

INSKEEP: And you referred to a militia largely controlled by Iran. I presume you're talking about a Shiite-Muslim militia in a largely Sunni area. How is that working out?

ARANGO: Yes, absolutely. All - most of the militias are Shia. The - a couple of the long-standing ones that answer to Iran have been central in this operation, one of them being Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the other one being Badr. It's raised huge concerns even that have rippled across the region. It's caused a stir in Saudi Arabia as they see what's happening, which is these militias surrounding a Sunni city. The militias say they're trying to get the civilians out. And they're trying to tamp down the sectarian tensions. But they're certainly there.

INSKEEP: How exactly are they going about trying to move in and take the city?

ARANGO: Well, they've tried to clear all these agricultural areas and all these other cities and really tighten a siege that has been underway actually for several months. Going back to December, there's been a siege of the city. Humanitarian organizations have raised concerns for many months about starvation inside the city. The refugee agencies say one - they've registered one single family from the center of Fallujah that's been able to escape.

INSKEEP: When you talk about thousands of people in the city apparently not seizing whatever opportunity there might be to leave, do you have any communication or any sense of why they would stay in that ISIS-controlled area?

ARANGO: My sense is the people in the center of the city cannot leave because ISIS will not let them leave. The ones that have been able to get out are in areas that have come under attack recently and have been able to escape as the fighting's going on. But in the center of the city, all the words that we get is that ISIS will not let them leave. And so they're terrified of leaving for being shot at by ISIS.

INSKEEP: Meaning that they can't even get out of their homes to risk going across no-man's land...

ARANGO: Exactly...

INSKEEP: ...To the other side.

ARANGO: ...Exactly. And the Iraqi government and the coalition, the Americans have pressed the people to put up white sheets on their windows to indicate that they're civilians.

INSKEEP: Although you can see so many ways that would go wrong.

ARANGO: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Tim Arango of The New York Times, joining us by Skype. Thanks very much.

ARANGO: Thanks Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.