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Despite Risks To Baghdad, Iraqi Troops Fight To Retake Fallujah


The battle to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah got started this week. The Iraqi military is trying to push ISIS out of the city with the help of a U.S.-led coalition. Today, the Pentagon said an ISIS commander was killed in Fallujah in an airstrike. But as more troops join the assault, some people are worried about protecting Baghdad. The city has seen a new wave of suicide bombings in recent days. Michael Knights wrote about this for Foreign Policy magazine, and I talked to him earlier today on Skype and asked what the latest battle of Fallujah means for Baghdad.

MICHAEL KNIGHTS: Well, what it means is that some of the security forces that are typically protecting Baghdad will be concentrating on Fallujah instead. And it probably also means that ISIS is going to try to strike back harder in Baghdad to try and shift the effort away from Fallujah, where they're under severe pressure, and try and disrupt and distract the Iraqi government.

MCEVERS: Talk about this wave of suicide attacks that we've seen in Baghdad recently.

KNIGHTS: Well, ISIS has been focusing on the battlefront for a while now. But as they lose ground, they're starting to throw more and more suicide attacks and car bombs into Baghdad. And in the last month, ISIS says that it's killed 522 people in Baghdad in a series of 15 or so major bombings.

MCEVERS: As these attacks continue in Baghdad and the city itself isn't as protected as it might've been before, how delicate is the situation in Baghdad?

KNIGHTS: There's no chance that we're going to see ISIS physical control of areas of Baghdad. They've been pushed back from the outskirts of the city, and coalition air power would very rapidly respond to any major ISIS move towards the capital. But what we are likely to see is increasing numbers of suicide attacks and car bombs within Baghdad city with the aim of getting Shia militias to retaliate against the Sunni residents of Baghdad and the outlying areas to change the narrative of the war from of all of Iraq against ISIS to Sunnis and Shias against each other.

MCEVERS: Which we've seen them do in the past.

KNIGHTS: That's correct.

MCEVERS: How likely is that to work?

KNIGHTS: Well, that strategy is more likely to work today than it would've been three, four years ago. And there are two reasons for that. The first is that many of Baghdad's residents are really upset with the poor governance, with the lack of electricity, so Iraqis are angry. The other reason why it might work is because, since 2014, when Mosul fell, we have seen a great rise in the prominence of the Shia militias in Iraq. And they are very keen to take a wider role in the securing of Baghdad.

MCEVERS: But ultimately, you see that the fight against ISIS is going well despite all of this. Despite the fact that Baghdad is vulnerable, you think the fight against ISIS is going well, and you see progress in the future.

KNIGHTS: The campaign that's being fought by the international coalition and the Iraqis at the moment has a pretty modest objective, which is to try and roll back the level of violence and insecurity in Iraq to 2013, before ISIS was actually controlling cities like Fallujah, Ramadi or Mosul. But as you recall, security in Baghdad and Iraq in 2013 was actually pretty terrible, so it's a low bar for achieving our objectives in this first phase of the war against ISIS. After this, we have to restart the counterterrorism campaign, which is about removing them to their lowest ebb, as they were in, let's say, late 2010, when we destroyed all of their leadership and when they were really on the decline.

MCEVERS: That's Michael Knights. He's with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. We reached him on Skype. Thanks so much for joining us today.

KNIGHTS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.