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Iraqi Forces Launch Offensive To Retake Ramadi From ISIS

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Iraq's battle against the Islamic State has moved into a new stage. Iraqi forces have stormed Ramadi, a city that ISIS has controlled since May. Ramadi is about 60 miles west of Baghdad, and this development has been weeks in the making. We're joined by multimedia journalist Ayman Oghanna of VICE News. It's an online news service. He's joining us now on a fairly scratchy line. Welcome to the program.

AYMAN OGHANNA: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And tell us, what's happening in Ramadi?

OGHANNA: So right now Iraqi forces are - today, as of this morning, started entering the center of Ramadi. It's an operation that's been going on for a few weeks now. And if it's successful it'll be the biggest victory for the Iraqi security forces in years. ISIS has been in control of Ramadi since last May, and this is seen as a real litmus test for the U.S.-led coalition strategy to degrade and destroy them.

SIEGEL: As you say, this operation has been going on for weeks, at least since early November. Why has it taken so long?

OGHANNA: You know, it's not an easy place to control. A decade ago, Ramadi was the sort of de facto capital for al-Qaida in Iraq - the group that became ISIS. And it took the U.S. military, you know, six or seven months to gain control of the city. And at the same time, officer in charge Colonel McFarland said he didn't have enough men. But luckily there was a local - what became known as the awakening or the Sahwa - tribal resistance to al-Qaida that helped the U.S. military hold the ground. So it's never been an easy place to control. So I think it's unfair to sort of say the Iraqis have been struggling. What has perhaps changed their fortune is - when I was there last week, a lot of men told that they really have noticed a massive increase in the U.S.-led coalition's air support and airstrikes against ISIS positions. And they said that they believe this was mostly or like clearly noticed since Russia intervened in Syria. They noticed a massive intensification, an increase in U.S. strikes against ISIS in Iraq.

SIEGEL: How many ISIS fighters are believed to be in Ramadi now?

OGHANNA: What's interesting about Ramadi is it's not like a city like Sinjar, which the Kurdish forces in northern Iraq took earlier in the year where IS are a sort of external foreign force. Ramadi has always been a center of insurrection. Even Saddam Hussein had a hard time penetrating and ruling it. So in Ramadi the Iraqi security forces are really fighting the city itself and locals there. So it's hard to say exact - now maybe in the area they're fighting today, the Iraqis said they're expecting about 500 ISIS fighters in this neighborhood. And the U.S. have said that they've killed hundreds if not thousands in the last couple of weeks. But I think the large portion for the population there would support or fight for ISIS.

SIEGEL: Well, what actually is the strategic importance of Ramadi in Iraq's battle against ISIS?

OGHANNA: You know, strategically I don't think it's that important. You know, it's - Anbar is a pretty desolate, barren place. There's no natural resources. I mean, sure, people say that it's X kilometers or miles from Baghdad whenever they mention it. But it's really kind of a world unto itself. But symbolically it's very important. It was the sort of crucible and birthplace of al-Qaida in Iraq or ISIS. It was a place where many Americans fought and lost their lives. and for both sides fighting today for the Iraqi security forces and for ISIS, it's a place where they've lost so many men. So I think they feel both side's very invested in this battle there.

SIEGEL: That's multimedia journalist Ayman Oghanna of VICE News. Thanks for talking with us.

OGHANNA: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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