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More Than Military Force Needed To Ending Fighting In Anbar


Over the weekend, the U.S. carried out military strikes in the Anbar region of western Iraq. And we're about to learn more about that place. In the Iraq War, more American troops died in the Anbar province than anywhere else. Hundreds of servicemen and women were killed fighting Islamic extremists. The new airstrikes were part of basically the same mission, this time in support of the Iraqi Army's fight against the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. Those extremists have a presence in Anbar, and while the people in Anbar don't necessarily want them there, it is complicated. NPR's Alice Fordham explains.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: To understand how tricky the situation is in Anbar, let's go back a year or so.


FORDHAM: That's the sound of a massive demonstration against the government out in the city of Ramadi, filmed by protesters. In this Sunni province, resentment simmers against the Shiite-led government. They say they are passed over for government jobs, targeted by security forces, imprisoned without charge.


FORDHAM: In January, the Sunni militants, now known as the Islamic State, burst into Anbar, uploading videos of their battles, like this one.


FORDHAM: They gained some support from the disillusioned people there. Others say they don't like them, but they like the government even less. In Baghdad, I meet Bashir Ahmed for tea. He's a chef who fled Fallujah in Anbar province and tells me what it's like there.

BASHIR AHMED: (Through translator) What's happening is that the Islamic State is mostly present on the outskirts of town. But inside the town, people lead fairly normal lives. It's like if you hit a dog, it will bite you. The Islamic State is exactly like that; if you don't hit them, they won't harm you.

FORDHAM: Ahmed says he hates the Islamic State, but he's more afraid of the government forces. He says they target civilians with mortars and crude barrel bombs, allegations backed by reports from Human Rights Watch.

AHMED: (Through translator) I hope for an outside force, neither the Islamic State nor the army.

FORDHAM: Politicians from Barack Obama to Iraq's Prime Minister Designate Haider al-Abadi say the solution is inclusive government along with military force. The argument goes that if Sunnis are properly treated, it will help in the fight against the Islamic State. But who will speak for them? Ahmed says not the politicians in Baghdad, and sheiks are too concerned with tribal affairs.

AHMED: (Through translator) We don't know who represents us. We're so dizzy because of what's happening. We have no idea.

FORDHAM: Over in the parliament building in Baghdad, I ask Hamid al-Mutlaq, a politician from Anbar about this complaint.

HAMID AL-MUTLAQ: (Through translator) It's the right of the Anbari citizen to feel that way to talk about it. We haven't been able to provide them with anything, so they have every right to say what they're saying.

FORDHAM: I ask how he'll convince Anbaris he cares. But he says it's impossible.

AL-MUTLAQ: (Through translator) I can't send the message to the people of Anbar. They can't see or hear. They don't have electricity. They don't have basic services.

FORDHAM: It transpires he hasn't been to the province in seven months. Later today, the parliament is set to approve a new government. The prime minister designate has promised reconciliation, though he says it will take time. The fighting, too, is likely to take time. After yesterday's U.S. airstrikes, soldiers and tribal fighters pushed into the area of Haditha. The governor of Anbar tweeted from there that army bases were recaptured. Shortly afterward, he was taken to hospital. The militants were still close enough to lob a mortar at him. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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