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Libyan Forces And Islamic State Fighters Battle For Sirte

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is nearly impossible to understand what life is like inside ISIS, usually too dangerous to report from their strongholds. But we do have some clues this morning from what had been one of the group's bastions, the coastal city of Sirte in Libya. Militias loyal to Libya's government have been trying to push the Islamic State out of that city. And they have made progress with help from U.S. airstrikes. Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post is one of the few Western journalists who got into Sirte in the weeks after ISIS began fleeing. What he found was a city fractured by skirmishes and bombings.

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: It was literally a ghost town. The stores and businesses were completely shuttered. Not a single soul was walking, you know, on the streets. You could see, you know, shattered buildings, shattered homes.

GREENE: Raghavan met residents who described the barbaric acts they endured under the rule of Islamic State militants.

RAGHAVAN: Militants had erected a large metal-frame-like structure in which they would basically strap the arms and legs of people they suspected of being spies.

GREENE: Almost like a crucifix?

RAGHAVAN: It was exactly like a crucifixion. And then they would essentially execute them with bullets, you know, to the head at that point, and leave the body there for three days to serve as a warning.

GREENE: Of course, this is the ISIS the world has come to know. But Raghavan also heard stories of a new ISIS strategy, one that needed the participation of Sirte's residents.

RAGHAVAN: Well, what was surprising to me is that the extent to which the Islamic State was trying to create a government there, a functioning government with a bureaucracy, you know, a credible judicial system, public services. I spoke with one traffic police officer who lived there throughout the time. And he was describing to me how one day a couple of ISIS militants came over to his house. Funnily enough, they were there basically to offer him a job. They wanted him to be the head of the new traffic police department that would eventually turn into a department of motor vehicles.

GREENE: An institution that we're all familiar with, I mean, like, police and traffic police and the DMV, the Department of Motor Vehicles.

RAGHAVAN: Exactly, exactly. They also made a point to make the judicial system credible. Like, I was interviewing one group of brothers who were arrested for supporting the pro-government militias. They were sending text messages to friends, and the militants picked them up for that. And one of the brothers still had the messages on his phone. And he was immediately sentenced to death, and that was it.

But the other two brothers had erased the messages on their phone. And interestingly enough, the militants decided to - basically handed the two other brothers to a court. And the judge found that there was not enough evidence to proceed forward, and the two other brothers released.

GREENE: So you're saying they were determined, or had a dream of setting up, you know, some sort of functioning government where they didn't seem so cruel that it would drive the local population away. And maybe it would give them some level of credibility in the world. And dare I say, they could make the argument that sure, there is cruelty here. But there are other places in the world where there are governments that might be just as cruel, so maybe let us alone.

RAGHAVAN: In their minds, it's all about creating a proper government under Islamic law. So I think part of the reason why they treated the population - sort of this carrot-and-stick approach where they left many of them alone and they had a functioning bureaucracy - is so that they could create the state. And they needed the support of the population for that.

GREENE: If you are a person who pledged allegiance to ISIS and - I don't know - even started to believe in some of their very harsh codes and now ISIS is being driven away, what's the situation for people now?

RAGHAVAN: Certainly when I was there, you could sense the disgust amongst the militias of why the Sirte people haven't - why they didn't rise up on their own against the Islamic State. Why are you not fighting against them? Why haven't you risen up?

GREENE: And why didn't they rise up?

RAGHAVAN: So you have, like, this dynamic where you had a population who was willing to go with them, who were either too scared to combat them or have decided that perhaps they were a better alternative than being ruled by their rivals in Tripoli or their rivals in Misrata.

GREENE: OK. What does that say about the world, if ISIS can come in and people can say, you're the best option we have?

RAGHAVAN: Certainly for Libya, it doesn't bode well. I mean, no one believes that even with ISIS - if and when ISIS gets eradicated from Sirte - no one in Libya believes that the conflict is over. So even if ISIS falls in Sirte, the war in Libya is far from over.

GREENE: Sudarsan, thanks so much for talking to us. We appreciate it.

RAGHAVAN: I appreciate it. Thank you.

GREENE: That was The Washington Post's Cairo bureau chief, Sudarsan Raghavan. We reached him on Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.