DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's turn our attention now to Iraq, where there's been a new bout of violence. The government there is fighting Al Qaida-linked militants who have reportedly overrun police stations and jails. Government forces have responded to this with missile strikes and ground troops. This fighting is in the country's western Anbar Province, which borders Syria.
And the Syrian civil war is partly to blame for the flare-up because it has created safe havens for Sunni militants to operate. But the Iraqi government, which is dominated by Shiites, has also been blamed for increasing the tensions by making sweeping arrests of Sunnis, including some political leaders. We're joined by Will Dunlop, a reporter in Baghdad for the French Press Agency AFP. Will, good morning.
WILL DUNLOP: Morning.
GREENE: What is the latest you've heard about this fighting? How bad is it?
DUNLOP: Well, the fighting is sporadic but ultimately militants are in control of areas of two major Iraqi cities. It's said to be up to a quarter of the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and areas of Ramadi as well, where they've made advances in morning fighting. This violence began on Monday with the closure of a Sunni (unintelligible) anti-government protest camp that was established more than a year ago.
DUNLOP: And it has continued off and on for the intervening several days. Security forces departed areas of both of these cities and that ultimately freed them up for militants to move in and they have yet to be dislodged.
GREENE: So you mention this anti-government protest camp that was cleared out. I mean has the government said why they needed to do this now? It sounds like that really did set off this violence here, as you're describing it.
DUNLOP: The government explanation for the removal of the camp was to quote the prime minister, it had become a headquarters for the leadership of al-Qaida. They were saying it was being used by militants and that's why it had to go. However, the desire of political leaders, specifically the prime minister, to have this camp removed predates those assertions, effectively since these protests broke out, the authorities have sought to have them shut down.
GREENE: So just to be clear, I mean these al-Qaida linked militants, are they literally taking over towns and driving away people in the government?
DUNLOP: Well, it appears that yesterday they were carrying out patrols in the city of Ramadi in some areas and were able to burn police stations, some of which had been abandoned by police in both Fallujah and Ramadi and they had set up checkpoints in some areas of Fallujah. So they are in control of areas of two major Iraqi cities.
GREENE: And Will, just let me ask you, you're saying that some of these Sunni militants are linked to al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is such a broad term that, you know, strikes a lot of Americans in a certain way. We know there are different branches of al-Qaida around the world. Who exactly are we talking about here?
DUNLOP: It's unclear whether - exactly who they. There may be some Iraqis. There may be some Syrians. This is the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant so it operates in Iraq and Syria. It's actually one of the main jihadist organizations fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria. There are various branches of al-Qaida separate from the central organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This particular one, the unification of the Iraqi and Syrian branches of this group has not been met with approval by al-Qaida central, which is why we say and al-Qaida-linked group as opposed to one that's directly under al-Qaida control.
GREENE: You know, one of the dynamics that I think a lot of us remember in some of the reporting from Iraq is that at one point the United States military forces were able to work with some people who are Sunni to actually fight against Sunni militants. Does that seem to be an option now for the Iraqi government, to try and bring some people who are Sunni who live in these areas onboard to help them fight these militants?
DUNLOP: (Unintelligible) possibility. Actually the defense ministry spokesman said yesterday that the government had distributed arms to some Sunni tribesman. One problem with that, though, is it's a bit late in the day, ultimately, for a return to that type of cooperation because a lot of these fighters feel like they've been neglected in the years since the U.S. left and the U.S. stopped paying them.
They've faced issues getting their salaries and also in delays in terms of their integration into various government ministries, which was promised to them.
GREENE: And Will Dunlop, step back for us, if you can. You spoke recently with my colleague, Steve Inskeep, about an awful year of violence, the year 2013, in Iraq. Is this just another example of that playing out or is there a dynamic here that's new that raises some questions about the future of this country?
DUNLOP: Well, a lot of the violence in the course of 2013 with attacks were either - sometimes they were assaults on facilities like prisons, but often it was just bombings or assassinations and then the militants would withdraw. This is ultimately, I think, more dangerous in that they're actually holding territory and holding significant areas of these cities, so it's not just a hit and run type of attack. It's a more prolonged presence and a greater assertion of authority in these areas.
GREENE: Will Dunlop is a reporter in Baghdad for the French press agency, the AFP. Will, thanks as always.
DUNLOP: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.