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White House Sharpens Focus On ISIS Moves In Anbar Province

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We'll focus now on one of the battlefields in the war against ISIS.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It is Iraq's Anbar Province, and that's the vast area north and west of Baghdad. It is dominated by Sunni Muslims. It includes cities like Fallujah that became famous as battlefields where Americans fought brutal combat in the last Iraq War.

INSKEEP: The Obama Administration is now trying to figure out how to turn the fight in its favor. And we turn to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman who's in our studios once again. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what's the situation on the ground west of Baghdad?

BOWMAN: Well, Islamic State fighters are clearly on the move. They've sent additional fighters from over the border in Syria. And in the past week, they've taken an Iraqi military base. They hold cities, including Fallujah. And they're threatening Ramadi, as well.

Now local officials estimate they control as much as 80 percent of Anbar Province. Now Anbar is a Sunni Muslim area, and ISIS has been able to find some support among those Sunni tribes - people who felt alienated from the last Iraqi government. But that may be changing with the new Iraqi government.

INSKEEP: Tom, to people who know the recent history, this is tragic. This is an area that is dominated by Sunni tribes, as you said. These tribes turned against the United States years ago, were brought back onto the other side and fought for the United States. And now they're in this situation again, and some of them are - what? - supporting ISIS? What's happening?

BOWMAN: Yeah, some are supporting ISIS. And some of the tribes that worked with the Americans are working with the Iraqi ground forces against ISIS, and they're fighting back. They're holding ground with the help of U.S. airstrikes.

But recently, hundreds of Iraqi forces retreated when that military base was overrun by Islamic State forces. So it's a very hard fight, and Iraqi forces are seeing their supply lines cut, and the Iraqi government has had to send in more forces.

INSKEEP: What is the United States doing?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. is conducting airstrikes throughout the area and in Anbar to push back the Islamic State forces. They've also used Apache helicopters in some close fights. But the larger effort by the United States it is to advise and train Iraqi forces because you need forces - ground forces - to hold territory. And as the president said, there will not be American combat forces on the ground there. Now NPR's reporter Alice Fordham spoke to a top White House adviser yesterday in Iraq. He's Tony Blinken, a deputy national security advisor. And she asked him what can be done about Anbar Province. Here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

TONY BLINKEN: There's an effort there to consolidate, regroup and ultimately to help retrain the Iraqi forces. As that happens, they will be able to go back on the offensive and put ISIL on the defensive, get it from its toes to its heels, including in Anbar. And that process is just starting.

INSKEEP: Process is just starting, in fact, you're telling us that ISIS, at this moment, is still gaining ground even though we have had several months of intense focus on this problem. There's been a change in government and U.S. advisors on the ground, and months have not been enough.

BOWMAN: That's right. And the question is, it's going to take - how long will it take to train Iraqi forces and get nuance into the field? Some are saying months, if not a year or so. And officials say about half of the entire Iraqi Army is really not ready to fight. They have poor leadership, or they just fled.

But again, you do need some type of ground force. And the U.S. expects that these - as these Iraqi forces get on the move, they can flush out the enemy, get them into the open where they can be hit by these U.S. airstrikes.

INSKEEP: Fallujah, which is held by ISIS, is a short drive from Baghdad. I've made that drive. You've made that drive.

BOWMAN: Right.

INSKEEP: Could Baghdad fall?

BOWMAN: No one thinks that Baghdad can fall because you have the most elite troops - Iraqi troops - there. You also have Shiite militias trained by Iran there. And - but the city is about 15 miles from the fighting. And if they get close enough, the Islamic State could use their mortars and artillery to strike Baghdad. You have 5,000 Americans in the embassy there, hundreds of American troops at the airport. So the real concern is could they be threatened by the Islamic State indirect fire?

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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