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In Iraq, Anbar Province Remains Fiercely Contested


The U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Syria against so-called Islamic State fighters is working, but will require patience. That was today's assessment from General Lloyd Austin. He's commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. He was asked about reports of ISIS gains in Iraq's Anbar Province.


GENERAL LLOYD AUSTIN: I would describe Anbar as contested. It's been that way for some time. I would also say that unlike some of what you have heard in a number of places, we have not seen an appreciable increase of ISIL forces in Anbar from what we saw in the July-August timeline.

BLOCK: NPR's Alice Fordham is in Northern Iraq in the city of Erbil and she joins us now. And, Alice, General Austin is saying they haven't seen an increase of Islamic State forces in Anbar. At the same time we're hearing that they're taking more territory in that province. What are you hearing?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, calling into our reporter today, who is in the provincial capital, Ramadi, we could hear gun battles going on. The security forces and the tribes that support them are engaged in fierce fights in the city with militants from the so-called Islamic State and their supporters. And security officials there have told us that soldiers have been redeployed from the city of Karbala in the south, but the Islamic State are battling for municipal buildings and military command centers in Ramadi. This comes after they took the town of Heet and a military base earlier in the week and they're fighting now for an area that is close to the city of Fallujah. So I think that yes, Anbar is contested, but it would be fair to say that it's extremely fiercely contested and the situation on the ground in the provincial capital is highly unstable.

BLOCK: And it's worth pointing out, Alice, that Anbar Province is just to the west of Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq.

FORDHAM: Yeah, exactly. This is very close to Baghdad. Now, people have expressed fears that Baghdad might fall to the Islamic State. I have to say I think most analysts think that's quite unlikely. Baghdad is highly secured in a way that Anbar isn't really, and much less of the population in Baghdad is supportive of the militants from the Islamic State. But in the last week we have seen an uptick in bombings likely conducted by the Islamic State or their allies and a lot of the people I'm speaking to there are frightened.

BLOCK: Well, Alice given the escalation of fighting the apparent urgency on the ground, has the U.S. military been responding with airstrikes in Anbar?

FORDHAM: There have been dozens of airstrikes in Anbar Province, in recent months. However in the last week or so there's been fewer than a dozen, far fewer than have happened for example in Syria, which we've heard so much about. What General Austin said today was that the focus of the coalition campaign against the Islamic State is Iraq, but what American officials say is that their plans for Anbar is not to conduct airstrikes to the point where they bring the Islamic State there to their knees, but rather to build up Iraqi security forces and bring the tribes there onside. So that they're in a position to fight the Islamic State there. Now everyone agrees, including the Iraqi Prime Minister, who made a statements about this, that this is the best plan, but there's no doubt that it will take time and for some people who are in embattled parts of Anbar - it feels like they don't have that much time.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Alice Fordham. She's in northern Iraq in the city of Erbil. Alice, thank you.

FORDHAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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