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Examining The Ramadi Offensive, Is It Working?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We hear about the threat from ISIS and the war being waged to destroy it. But it's sometimes hard to grasp how much territory this group controls, where its real influence is. Right now, Iraqi security forces are making advances into one city ISIS has controlled, Ramadi, in Iraq. I spoke to two colleagues, Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here in Washington and international correspondent Alice Fordham in Beirut. Both are very familiar with Iraq. Tom just returned from there.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, David.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Morning.

: Let me just start with you both. Can you just paint us a picture of Ramadi, the cities we've been hearing so much about the last few days?

BOWMAN: Well, Ramadi is a provincial capital of Anbar province. It's a sprawling city west of Baghdad. It's a poor city, endless cinderblock houses and high-rises almost as far as the eye can see.

FORDHAM: Yeah, and it's a run-down city. It's a place that's seen, you know, pretty much 12 years of conflict on and off now. It's a little rough around the edges.

: Well, let me turn to you, Tom, because you just spent some time there speaking to people in the military. What are the chances of success here for the United States and Iraqi militaries to drive out ISIS and take control back of the city firmly?

BOWMAN: Well, at this point, it looks like the Iraqi forces are moving into the city center itself. Now they've been working on this for seven months now. The American military's been pushing them and encouraging them to really get into the city and rout ISIS. So now they're finally doing it. There are a lot of car bombs and roadside bombs, house bombs, even, in this city planted by ISIS. So - but it's going to be a tough fight ahead, and the Iraqi generals expect to take the city back, the city of Ramadi, by mid-January.

: So are the Americans mostly playing a supporting role here?

BOWMAN: They are, its training, its equipment. And a key part of this, David, is the airstrikes. They've taken everything out from command posts to vehicles to individual ISIS guerrillas. So this would not have been possible without those punishing American airstrikes.

: Alice Fordham, let me ask you about the people in Ramadi. What will happen to civilians who have lived under ISIS control for a while now if ISIS begins to move out?

FORDHAM: Right, David. Yeah, like Tom says, I mean, he's described months of heavy fighting in Ramadi, and the city has gradually emptied out. And what we've seen, actually, is that it can be a slow process for civilians to come back to these places. There's often bad blood between the people who sided with ISIS and didn't side with ISIS. And in another Sunni-dominated city retaken earlier this year in Tikrit, it took a long time for government services to be restored, electricity and water and the local police to come to control the place. So for these places to come back to life afterwards takes a while.

: And I guess much of that might depend on the Shiite government and how much they'll support Sunni communities coming back and sort of re-establishing themselves there.

FORDHAM: Right, which has been a big issue. And, of course, Iraq is a country with a long and difficult history of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite groups. And Ramadi's actually a really interesting test because what we're saying is Iraqi security forces with international support and local Sunni fighters allied with them. And if this works and if those Sunni tribal fighters are successful in retaking the city and if they're able to police the city afterwards, then I think that that will be a significant moment in the fight against ISIS in Iraq.

: Key point here that we have heard from President Obama and others that if you bring in Sunni fighters, they are more credible in convincing a Sunni community to abandon ISIS and turn.

BOWMAN: Absolutely, it's a Sunni area. So the key here, once Ramadi is taken that you have the Sunni tribal fighters, Sunni police in there patrolling the city.

: So could Ramadi, in a way, be a blueprint for using mostly Sunni forces in what sounds like it might be a successful battle against ISIS?

BOWMAN: Right, because they're looking at also organizing the Sunni tribes up around Mosul to take back that city as well. That's the second largest city in Iraq. That's going to be a very, very tough fight. And the Shia militias were not used in Ramadi, and we're told by the Iraqi generals that they don't want any Shia militias up in Mosul, either, to take back that city. So - but again, that's going to be a very, very tough fight.

: Alice Fordham, you cover this whole region, and I think people in the United States hear about ISIS and the threat. But, you know, I struggle to understand exactly where they have territory, what it means. I mean, if Ramadi is taken away from ISIS, if cities like Fallujah and then maybe Mosul, I mean, are these devastating blows to ISIS that could be real steps toward eliminating this group?

FORDHAM: They would be significant steps toward eliminating ISIS as it currently exists, which is to say as a group that is able to exercise a modicum of control. You might even say governance in these places. It wouldn't eliminate the group as extremists, as insurgents, and I'm sure they would continue to wreak havoc in various forms in Iraq and Syria and in another places. We do have to remember that Ramadi didn't fall last year when Mosul was taken. Ramadi fell this year to ISIS fighters long after the Americans and other international forces were back in Iraq trying to train the troops, participating in international airstrikes. The Iraqi security forces were still so weak even with all that help that they actually lost a provincial capital. So yes, retaking Ramadi, if and when that happens, will be a step in the right direction, but it's a long road.

: All right, that's NPR international correspondent Alice Fordham in Beirut, NPR's Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent, joining me in the studio. Thank you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.