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Iraq's Fight Against ISIS Stalls

Oct 6, 2015
Originally published on October 6, 2015 1:44 pm

More than a year after the U.S. led the formation of an anti-ISIS coalition, the extremists still hold large parts of western and northern Iraq.

In the west, ISIS took the desert provincial capital, Ramadi, four months ago. A much-anticipated counteroffensive never materialized.

In a small area of Anbar Province that ISIS doesn't control, five Iraqi flags on bent brass poles mark out a parade ground bordered by a junkyard and dilapidated warehouse.

"We want to hear your voice!" yells an Iraqi army officer drilling about 200 recruits from local tribes who have pledged to fight ISIS.

Over the course of 15 to 20 days, the recruits receive physical and weapons training. "Then," says Maj. Laafi Abbas, "we send them to the front line."

Their preparation is minimal. Many of the sweating volunteers are in dress shoes or sneakers rather than boots. Few have guns. An instructor shows them how to dismantle a weapon while the men watch. Abbas says he'd like to train for longer, with more weapons, but he hasn't been assigned the money.

The Pentagon calls these tribal fighters crucial to the long-term defeat of ISIS. The thinking goes that in a place like Anbar, where ISIS enjoys considerable support, you have to encourage any local guys who may be prepared and willing to take on the extremists.

But the tribes say they're under-resourced and there's no way they can mount an offensive without more help either from the coalition or their own government.

"All the tribes here are ready to fight," says tribal leader Sheikh Hayel al-Humeidi, sitting in an office on the base. His men sided with the U.S. in the fight against al-Qaida almost a decade ago.

Now, he says, "we are under a lot of pressure from ISIS." The extremists are 350 yards away from the base. "Daily, they shoot rockets and mortars at our houses."

Outnumbered And Hoping For More Help

The tribal fighters work with the army and a small contingent of pro-government militias. But, says Army Col. Lawrence al-Issawi, they're overstretched and ISIS has better weapons and more men. "We're just holding the front line right now," he says.

Iraq's broken politics and economy offer plenty of reasons to explain the stalled fight.

Tumbling oil prices have left the country broke, and a proposed law to give more power to local fighters in Sunni areas like Anbar hasn't been passed. The legislation was treated with intense suspicion by lawmakers from the Shiite majority, including former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He said last month the proposed law was designed to divide the nation. Recent government reports have also detailed massive military corruption.

But tribal sheikhs, soldiers, lawmakers and senior officials lay the ultimate responsibility for Iraq's fight against ISIS squarely at the feet of the U.S.-led coalition.

"When the serious will is there, then the fight can start," says Hamed al-Mutlaq, deputy head of the government's defense and security committee. He wants the international coalition to train and equip members of the police, army and tribes, and provide air cover.

In an interview last week with France 24, Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, "We were expecting the international coalition, Americans, to bring massive air power to protect our forces," he said. "We haven't received that. At the moment we are getting support, but it's not major — it's limited."

He even raised the possibility of inviting Russia to bomb ISIS in Iraq.

The U.S. defends its efforts, pointing to more than 6,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since August of last year — which it says have killed thousands of ISIS fighters, including senior leaders — and advances by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Coalition trainers are also working with the army and tribal fighters on two bases in Anbar.

But the limited progress has drawn stinging criticism from American lawmakers as well. "There is no compelling reason to believe that anything we are currently doing will be sufficient to achieve the president's stated goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL," Sen. John McCain said during a hearing in July.

'I Don't Think We Will Achieve Any Progress'

One Iraqi soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity because he's afraid of his commanders, says the coalition, while taking some action, is not doing enough, given how weak Iraq's forces are.

He says he's received U.S. weapons and "very good" training from American and other instructors. He saved a man's life with the first aid he was taught. When he was deployed just south of Ramadi last month, other soldiers were able to call in airstrikes, allowing his unit to take and hold land on the outskirts of the city.

"We surrounded ISIS in Ramadi," he says. "But I don't think we will achieve any progress in future." He gestures to a TV tuned to the state channel, proclaiming victories, and calls it lies and propaganda.

He says that his commanders are corrupt, taking bribes to let people go on leave, and that they abandon troops when the battle heats up — and that there's scarce food and water. ISIS is better armed, more numerous and uses car bombs and similar tactics.

It will take "seven or eight years" to retake Ramadi, he guesses, unless the American forces leave the training camps on the two bases and join Iraqi soldiers on the ground. "Then we can liberate it," he says.

Meanwhile, more than 3 million people have been displaced by fighting in Iraq, most fleeing ISIS-held areas. Tens of thousands have piled into Anbar's government-held town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah.

Some of those displaced have built a little souk selling clothes and household items.

"The most important thing is that we go back to our city," says Mohammad Ahmad, a stallholder from Fallujah, which is controlled by ISIS. "But we haven't seen anything from the government or the army that can help us."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It has been more than a year now since the United States led the way in forming a coalition to fight ISIS. But in much of Iraq and Syria, the extremists are still gaining ground. In Iraq, any effort to counter them depends largely on Iraqi forces, either the Iraqi military or tribal fighters. NPR's Alice Fordham met some of them near the front lines in Anbar province. She wanted to know why their campaign has been stalling.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The main way into Anbar province without having to go through ISIS turf is over a rickety floating bridge. Few cars are allowed, so people walk over with handcarts full of chickens or onions or shoes into this small part of the province controlled by the government rather than ISIS. This no-cars rule is to stop ISIS from sending bombers into Baghdad, a containment measure. But I'm here to meet men who don't just want to contain ISIS. They want to fight back against them.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: (Yelling in Arabic).

FORDHAM: We reach a shabby parade ground where Iraqi army officers are training 200 men from local tribes.

LAAFI ABBAS: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Major Laafi Abbas says their course is 15 to 20 days.

ABBAS: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Then we send them to the front line.

The Pentagon calls these tribal fighters crucial to the long-term defeat of ISIS. But...

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: The Iraqi officers say they don't have the resources to do real training. They show the fighters how to dismantle a weapon, but there's only a few guns to practice on. Some men don't even have boots. But they have a track record.

HAYEL AL HUMEIDI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: I meet their sheikh, Hayel al Humeidi. He reminds me his men fought with the U.S. against al-Qaida years ago.

HUMEIDI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: And now they're fighting ISIS with some new America training and help from the Iraqi army, whose officers say they're under-equipped too.

LAWRENCE AL ISSAWI: (Through interpreter) We just holding the front line right now. We need help from central government.

FORDHAM: That's Army Colonel Lawrence al Issawi. He says they're holding ground but aren't strong enough to actually push ISIS back. A major offensive was expected four months ago to take back the provincial capital, Ramadi. I ask defense minister Khalid al Obeidi in Baghdad why that never happened.

KHALID AL OBEIDI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He tells me, "we can't lose any more soldiers," and, "you endanger civilians by going in before your forces are ready." But he won't say when they might be ready, although Iraqi officials cite a dire financial situation and massive corruption in the military as obstacles to fighting ISIS. To get an idea of what's going to be needed, I meet a soldier who's been fighting close to Ramadi.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He won't give his name because he's afraid of his commanders but tells me it's not like the government or coalition isn't doing anything. He recently had American training, and they armed his unit, too.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Through interpreter) They transfer us to Ramadi. We spent two days there. We liberated from 30 to 40 kilometers.

FORDHAM: Liberated the outskirts from ISIS, that is. And following heavy casualties, reinforcements arrived. But he says the officers are still a problem.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: They take bribes to let people go on leave and flee themselves as soon as the battle heats up. Food and water are scarce. Plus, he too says ISIS just has way more men and weapons and uses devastating car bombs in battle.

How long do you think before Ramadi is retaken?

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Through interpreter) Ramadi retaken will last from seven to eight years.

FORDHAM: "Unless," he says - and I hear this from many others too - "the U.S. sends in forces like it had here before." Meanwhile, millions of frightened people have fled ISIS. Many of them live in this government-held town in Anbar called Amiriyat al Fallujah. Mohammad Ahmad runs a market store here.

MOHAMMAD AHMAD: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "The most important thing is that we go back to our city," he says sadly.

AHMAD: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: But he says they haven't seen anything from the government or the army that can help them. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Anbar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.