An Update On The Fight Against ISIS NPR's Arun Rath speaks with correspondent Alice Fordham in Beirut about the Iraqi Army's push to re-take territory from the self-proclaimed Islamic State and reports of the destruction of antiquities.

An Update On The Fight Against ISIS

An Update On The Fight Against ISIS

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NPR's Arun Rath speaks with correspondent Alice Fordham in Beirut about the Iraqi Army's push to re-take territory from the self-proclaimed Islamic State and reports of the destruction of antiquities.


We begin this hour in Iraq, where reports have emerged that men from the self-named Islamic State, or ISIS, have destroyed ancient palaces and statues at archaeological sites thousands of years old. That's in addition, of course, to the staggering human toll ISIS has taken in its brutal advance across parts of Iraq and Syria. For an update on the war against ISIS, we turn to NPR's Alice Fordham, who joins us on the line from Beirut. Alice, what do we know about the destruction of these ancient sites?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, frustratingly, we can confirm very little on this occasion. ISIS recently have released videos of themselves causing destruction in the Mosul Museum and other archaeological sites. But on this occasion, we're talking about two other very large, very important ancient sites called Nimrud and Hatra. Officials in Iraq say that they know that ISIS brought trucks to Nimrud recently and that witnesses in the area confirmed that there's been damage to the remains of a palace at Nimrud and also to some parts of Hatra. But beyond that, they can't tell us exactly what's been lost on this occasion.

Typically, what ISIS does is control information about what they do, as they did in the case of the destruction of the Mosul Museum. They release a definitive, well-produced propaganda video at a time of their choosing. Clearly, the idea of this destruction is upsetting, especially to Iraqis who often are very proud of their long history. I spoke to an Iraqi archaeologist this week who remembered visiting Nimrud for the first time in the 1980s. And he was very distressed to feel that no Iraqi would ever have that experience again.

RATH: Alice, have you been to those sites?

FORDHAM: Yes. They're amazing. There's a real icon in Iraq which is a mythical beast from the Assyrian civilization which is called a lamassu. They're usually depicted as bulls with wings and human faces. And at Nimrud, I remember there were two at the gates of what was thought to be this palace. And I spoke with a lady who used to work at the Mosul Museum this week, and she said that they're definitely gone now.

RATH: Now, this week, there has been some progress made in the battle to retake territory from ISIS, right?

FORDHAM: Yeah. A big offensive was launched about a week ago that is making progress, although not very fast because ISIS lay a lot of mines and booby-traps on the roads. Its mission is to take back the city of Tikrit, which is up north of Baghdad.

The forces that are fighting there at the moment on the side of the Iraqi government are primarily the army and largely Shiite paramilitary forces with Iranian support. They do have Sunnis fighting with them, often from local tribes, but in smaller numbers.

And that matters, Arun, because cities like Tikrit that they're trying to take back are almost all populated by Iraq's Sunni minority. And American officials, in particular, want to avoid that violence becoming sectarian. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, is going to be in Baghdad this week. And he says what matters in Tikrit is what follows the battle - whether Sunnis will be able to return to their homes in safety.

RATH: And the city of Mosul is key, as well, right?

FORDHAM: Right. And there's been a lot of debate about when there'll be a push for Mosul. It's not clear when it will happen. It's much bigger than Tikrit. It's much more densely populated. And this weekend, there was grim indication that coordination on the ground might not be all it could be. Some of the Kurdish forces known as Peshmerga opened fire on a group of Canadian advisers - their allies - because they thought they were ISIS fighters. And one of the Canadians did die in that incident.

RATH: Finally, Alice, just yesterday, we heard that the Nigerian group Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS. What does that really mean?

FORDHAM: Well, if this is confirmed, I think we would note that Boko Haram has been affiliated with al-Qaida in the past. Switching its allegiance to ISIS is a kind of indicator of how much ISIS have grown in global strength, although ultimately, given the big distances between them, how much they'd really be able to coordinate is in question, I'd say.

RATH: That's NPR's Alice Fordham on line with us from Beirut. Alice, thanks very much.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.

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