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Iraqi Forces Prepare To Reclaim Ramadi From Islamic State


In Iraq, government forces are preparing to mount an assault in Anbar Province. The plan is to retake the provincial capital, Ramadi. Iraqi forces fled that city a week and a half ago, seething it to the self-described Islamic State or ISIS. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now with more about the operation to retake Ramadi. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: And tell us more about what's happening on the ground in Anbar.

BOWMAN: Well, Robert, right now, Iraqi forces, their militia allies are moving into place in the outskirts of Ramadi. A Pentagon official said he'd expect the operation to begin within the coming days. The U.S., meanwhile, has increased surveillance flights around Ramadi and stepped-up bombing strikes targeting ISIS positions in the city and also the supply lines, Robert, which extend back into Syria. And finally, U.S. officials say ISIS is setting up defensive works inside Ramadi, creating berms, fighting positions, also putting in roadside bombs, even car bombs to get ready for this fight.

SIEGEL: But just a couple of days ago, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the Iraqi security forces, those who you say are readying for battle right now, lack the will to fight. Those were his words.

BOWMAN: That's right. And the Iraqi officials were pretty upset. But there is a pattern here, Robert. Iraqi forces fell apart in Mosul last year. They couldn't defeat ISIS in the city of Tikrit back in March without help from Iranian-backed militias, and now they're - they've fled this large provincial capital, Ramadi. So you have a number of problems here. The U.S. spent billions of dollars, of course, training Iraqi forces, but U.S. officials say all the good commanders were removed by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and replaced by what people call political hacks. Also, you're seeing an army that never really has been tested in combat. ISIS is a very tough and canny foe willing to die for a cause. There's another problem here, too. The Sunni tribes in Anbar - remember, this a - largely a Sunni area - could have helped in the fight against ISIS, but they never got the military training, the weapons that they kept pushing the Shia government to give them. And that's still - there's still a serious ethnic divide at play here within Iraq.

SIEGEL: So what are the expectations for the Iraqi security forces this time around?

BOWMAN: I would say they're pretty low given the recent history. But what's important is that there is thousands of Shiite militia fighters heading into this area, willing to help out. And remember, of course, these militias were helpful in taking back the city of Tikrit back in March. So on the one hand, the Shiite militias are helpful on the ground, but on the other hand, the U.S. has said it will not provide airstrikes in support of Iranian-backed Shiite militias but will only help those who come under government control. So that's another added problem here.

SIEGEL: Well, do we expect the U.S. to expand its role in Iraq?

BOWMAN: You know, we don't at this point. The Obama administration, of course, has said no U.S. combat troops on the ground in Iraq, only U.S. trainers at the Iraqi bases. And the U.S. is providing airstrikes and surveillance, as I mentioned earlier, but there are complaints from active and retired U.S. pilots that there still aren't enough airstrikes to make a difference on the ground here.

SIEGEL: This effort to retake Ramadi - do we have some sense of a timeframe here? How - are the Iraqis or is the U.S. saying how soon this might happen?

BOWMAN: I talked to one Pentagon official. He said two or three days. Another said about a week.

SIEGEL: OK (laughter). That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thank you.

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

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.