Al-Qaida-Linked Militia Gains Control Of Fallujah

Robert Siegel talks to independent journalist Jane Arraf about the takeover of Fallujah and Ramadi by an al-Qaida-linked group. Arraf is based in Baghdad and was in Fallujah three weeks ago.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The government of Iraq has lost control of the city of Fallujah. An Islamist militia linked to al-Qaida has gained control of much of that city and the Iraqi Army is now trying to figure out how to win it back. In 2004, U.S. Marines were fighting for Fallujah. To hear how things have come apart and who's fighting whom, we turn now to Jane Arraf. She's a long-time Baghdad-based journalist whose work appears in Al Jazeera America and the Christian Science Monitor. And she was in Fallujah last month. She's here today in Washington. Hi, welcome to the program.

JANE ARRAF: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: First, the group that's linked to al-Qaida is called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Tell us about them.

ARRAF: Well, they're kind of what al-Qaida became - and we remember al-Qaida because they were responsible for some of them most horrific things during this war. They've actually transformed themselves. And we have to remember that al-Qaida is sort of a franchise. It's a group of interlinked but loosely interlinked cells. And the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is fighting for what it believes it already has, the beginnings of an Islamic state that will cross borders. It's mainly in Syria now but it is reaching out back to Iraq, where it essentially started and where it still has links.

SIEGEL: It obviously is a Sunni Muslim group.

ARRAF: It is a Sunni Muslim group, although not everyone believes that, oddly enough, in Iraq. But its ideology is very much Salafi extremist, what we would consider extremist Sunni philosophy.

SIEGEL: Well, the battle between these groups, the ISIS, and the Baghdad government seems fairly straightforward. But also involved in the fight in Fallujah are the local tribes, which are, I guess typically Sunni Muslim as well. What role do they play in all of this?

ARRAF: Well, I think one of the things that's happened while we haven't really been paying attention in the West to Iraq in the past year is that the country has become essentially partitioned along sectarian lines. Now, Anbar, we have to remember, is the biggest province in Iraq. It goes all the way up to the Syrian border.

SIEGEL: This is where Fallujah and also Ramadi are.

ARRAF: This is where Fallujah and Ramadi are. It borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It's very, very tribal, and that's why the Americans had such a hard time there in 2004, 2003. That's why Saddam Hussein had such a hard time there. Now, the dynamic is that there is a long list of grievances that have been suppressed.

SIEGEL: These are grievances on the part of the Sunni Muslims of Anbar province against the government in Baghdad of Prime Minister al-Maliki?

ARRAF: Absolutely. It's not just that they're Sunni and it's a Shia-led government. It's that Maliki's government feels that it is under direct threat. He feels there's coup around every corner. And the most likely source of that coup, he believes, would come from Anbar, from Ramadi or Fallujah, fostered by other Sunni countries around Iraq. And that's part of the problem. It's not just Iraq. It is now a regional conflict and we're seeing that played out on the streets of Fallujah, which has been increasingly cut off from Baghdad over the past year.

SIEGEL: Well, is the Islamist group, ISIS, does it tap into some vein of public support around Fallujah? I mean, is it welcomed by the people there?

ARRAF: This is the terrible choice that you have to make, that one has to make, when you are in a country which has not emerged from war in the past 10 years. In 2003 and 2004, people there believed they had no one to protect them. So, they turned to al-Qaida. Al-Qaida overplayed its hand and then they turned al-Qaida, many of the tribes, in what was called the awakening with U.S. forces. The Americans left, the Sahwa, the awakening, the tribes who turned against al-Qaida were essentially abandoned. A lot of them were assassinated. And now they're in a fight that's multilayered. The army has not been into Fallujah and Ramadi. It can't go in because people are so hostile to it. The Iraqi government is engaged in mass arrests. It's arrested women. It's rounded up children. There's a long list of grievances there that really cut to the core of what Iraq is. And that's part of the reason why this is so complicated and so hard to fix.

SIEGEL: The way you describe it, it doesn't sound as though the prime minister, al-Maliki, stands much of a chance of putting this back together again.

ARRAF: You know, the Americans used to say when they were there, there is no military solution. And it's as true now as it was in 2004 when the Americans went in with Iraqi forces to Fallujah and essentially destroyed a large part of that city. What Sunnis around the country have been asking for, what disenfranchised groups who could be Shia or could be Sunni had been asking for is a share of political power. It's a feeling that they actually belong in the government. They haven't seen any of that yet. They've seen a lot of promises. But it's going to take a lot of political will, a lot of political compromises from a government that both feels it's under threat in Iraq, outside Iraq and is facing elections in a few months.

SIEGEL: Jane Arraf, thank you very much for talking with us about recent events in Fallujah.

ARRAF: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Jane Arraf was in Washington today, has been covering Iraq since 1991.

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