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World

Self-Declared Islamic State Takes Iraqi City Of Ramadi

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Iraqi city of Ramadi is now completely in the control of militant fighters from the self-declared Islamic State. The city fell over the weekend despite a heavy bombing campaign by the U.S.-led coalition. Iraqi government forces were killed or fled. Tim Arango, the New York Times Baghdad Bureau chief says seizing control of Ramadi is a big win for ISIS.

TIM ARANGO: Especially at a time when the Americans are constantly saying they're on the defensive and getting weaker. You know, it's a huge symbolic victory for them and, I would imagine, would, you know, help with recruitment.

BLOCK: And Arango says Shiite militiamen are now mobilizing to retake Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar Province.

ARANGO: Well, today we saw thousands of Shiite militiamen streaming towards Anbar getting ready for what comes next in the coming days in terms of offensive on Ramadi. Inside Ramadi itself where ISIS has been consolidating control, we've heard that they've been going around looking for, you know, security forces, people who had been loyal to the government, asking them to come and repent at the mosque, and in other cases we've heard of executions as well. So it's another grim day in Anbar.

BLOCK: Let's talk about those Shiite militias that you say are gathering, getting ready to try to retake Ramadi from the Islamic State militants. Are they in a position to do that? Are they armed? Do they have backing to try to retake the city?

ARANGO: They're certainly seen as a very, very capable force. They've been the main force that has pushed back the Islamic State from other areas of Iraq, such as around Tikrit. They're very well armed, partly by the Iranian government. And they also have the manpower. Iraq is a - you know, is a Shia-dominated country, and a lot of these militia units were formed last summer when the Shiite clerics put out a call to arms, so they certainly have the manpower, and they certainly have the morale and the motivation.

BLOCK: You mentioned that these militias are armed by the Iranian government. Are they under the control of Iranian commanders? Whom do they answer to?

ARANGO: Right now there's been a great effort by the prime minister to show that he's in control. And it's an interesting situation because in an individual case like with Anbar, they didn't rush to Anbar until the prime minister ordered them to, but in effect, they are - the most powerful ones, anyway - are Iranian - essentially Iranian-directed.

BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about sectarian fears of what might happen next in Ramadi. We should remind people this is an overwhelmingly Sunni area. You have thousands of Shiite militiamen going in to try to retake control. Is there great concern that this will be yet another sectarian bloodbath in Iraq?

ARANGO: Well, there's certainly great concern, particularly on part of the American officials because in recent weeks and months they've advised the prime minister not to send them. However, it's important to note that things had gotten so bad in Anbar that it was Anbar officials, actually, including the Anbar official council, over the weekend that voted to ask for the militias to come and save them. So there is some legitimacy to them being there, but those concerns about sectarian violence and revenge killings there are - those concerns are always there.

BLOCK: Tim, what does all this say about the strategy of U.S. airstrikes to try to support Iraqi government forces on the ground and how effective those have been - or ineffective?

ARANGO: Yeah. Well, it clearly raises questions about the U.S. strategy. In that, it clearly shows that the combination of American air power and the Iraqi security forces, at least in Anbar, was not enough. And that's why the militias are being called in. When we saw the operation in Tikrit several weeks ago - at first it was just the militias and Iraqi security forces. That didn't work until the American airstrikes came in, so I think going forward, the big question is, to what scale will the American airstrikes continue with the militias on the ground? And my understanding is the Americans said they will continue to support it as long as the militias are, you know, answering to the prime minister. But there also needs to be coordination because the Americans are very worried about, you know, friendly fire incidents. So they need to know where these militias are, so they don't bomb then.

BLOCK: Tim Arango, Baghdad Bureau chief of The New York Times. Tim, thanks so much.

ARANGO: Thank you very much, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.