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Islamic State Fighters Gain New Ground In Iraq's Anbar Province



I'm Robert Siegel.

There is word today of new gains by so-called Islamic State fighters in Iraq's Anbar province. A military base fell to ISIS and over the weekend the provincial police chief was killed by a roadside bomb. In Anbar, as well as elsewhere in the north of the country, the U.S. and its allies kept up airstrikes against ISIS positions.

NPR's Alice Fordham is in Iraq and spent the day with Kurdish forces there. She joins me now on the line. And Alice, where were you today and what did you see?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, I was in a town called Khanaqin, which is just on Iraq's border with Iran. So this is pretty much the southernmost place now held by Iraq's Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga. And a few miles away from there is the town of one Jalawla, which is pretty much entirely held by Islamic State militants now.

So to get from Khanaqin out to the last Peshmerga post before Jalawla, you drive one straight very exposed road. And as we're driving along, the soldiers are pointing out to me where the militants have laid roadside bombs in the last two weeks, abandoned houses where snipers are hiding and as we reach the very last post, which is on the brow of a hill looking out over a flatter area, where Jalawla is, just as the Peshmerga are telling me how every day they're exchanging fire with the Islamic State, they're taking mortar fire and so on, they cite three of the extremist's vehicles a few miles away heading in our direction.

SIEGEL: So how do the Peshmerga respond to something like that?

FORDHAM: Well, they would say not strongly enough. They were able to rattle off some large caliber guns, but when they decided they wanted to fire mortars at the vehicles, they had to make a series of phone calls on cell phones with bad signal to ask permission to fire a mortar round from their commanders. And they reckoned that was because of shortages of ammunition and there were lots of other things that they're short of.

So this frontline post that I was talking about, on the top of the hill, has no hard cover and they said they just didn't have the materials to build any. They were wearing sneakers rather than boots, they said they had to buy them themselves, they don't have proper communications. But most of all, they say they can't hold this territory - which they've painstakingly retaken in a series of battles - without heavy weapons and without armored vehicles and there's a lot of frustration there. And it's been made worse in the last few days, the extremists were able to conduct a sophisticated attack - a triple car bombing - close to the city of Kirkuk yesterday and it killed dozens of Peshmerga fighters.

SIEGEL: Alice, tell us about the military base in Anbar that fell into ISIS hands?

FORDHAM: Right. So this is in the town of Hit, which has seen fierce fighting in the last few weeks and security officials tell us that today the military base there fell to the Islamic State. This is particularly worrying. This is something that we've seen happen before in the city of Mosul, where the fighters were able to obtain a lot of sophisticated weaponry, often American-made - armored vehicles, that kind of thing - which significantly strengthened them. And I think this is likely to be particularly worrying for American officials. You know, Anbar is really where they've concentrated a lot of their efforts, not just now, but years ago people will remember the fighting to retake Fallujah the city from al-Qaida forces. This has really been a (unintelligible) for years and years. So they've conducted dozens of airstrikes there. Local officials, tribal sheikhs, say that American soldiers have been reaching out to them trying to help build a force to fight the Islamic State. But the extremists have had a big presence in Anbar since January this year and pushing them back just doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon.

SIEGEL: And Anbar province's police chief was also assassinated by ISIS in a big car bombing. What does that mean for the anti-ISIS effort there?

FORDHAM: It's the latest in a series of blows. You know, the governor of Anbar was hit by the Islamic State's firepower earlier in the year. He was injured. The Islamic State has used sophisticated tactics. There are sieges, large-scale ambushes, as well as things like car bombs. And it seems to be working, you know? The Iraqi army has long been extremely demoralized there, if you speak to soldiers. And this is really getting close to Baghdad, which is scaring people there.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Alice Fordham in Iraq.

Alice, thank you as always.

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

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