In Shattered Ramadi, A Weakened ISIS Fights On Behind Human Shields

Jan 15, 2016
Originally published on January 15, 2016 8:00 pm

On a cold desert morning full of birdsong and smokers' coughs, the head of Iraq's special forces is holding court in the master bedroom of a commandeered family home, perched on the edge of a rumpled pink bed and lighting his first cigarettes of the day.

"In Ramadi city, and Ramadi's suburbs, ISIS is broken, they no longer exist," declares Maj. Gen. Fadhil Barwari, blowing smoke over curlicued bedroom furniture.

American and Iraqi officials recently hailed a victory against the Islamic State in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province that's just 70 miles west of Baghdad. ISIS had captured the city last May and retaking it was a top priority for the Iraqis.

But despite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's visit to the city center, and Barwari's boasts, the extremists are still holed up in the southeast of Ramadi, and progress there is being slowed by the presence of thousands of civilians.

"When ISIS retreated from other districts, they took civilians with them as human shields," says Barwari. He calls it a problem but says the "cleaning" operations are ongoing and tells his men to take us from this improvised base to see for ourselves.

The road winds past buildings with caved-in roofs and crushed pillars. The small cinder block houses have holes blasted through the walls, which allowed ISIS fighters to run from house to house as they fought to defend the city. A pedestrian bridge, painted pink, is a collapsed heap. Humvees are crumpled masses of metal. No one is living here.

Deeper in, it becomes clear fighting is still intense. Helicopters buzz overhead every few minutes, laying down covering fire. Frequent explosions rattle the windows of the empty houses. The soldiers say these bangs are airstrikes carried out by the U.S.-led coalition.

"We are, inshallah, going to move into the Sofia area," Sgt. Maj. Raed Mohammad tells me, standing in a street littered with shell casings and gesturing to the southeast. But, "in this area, we are using different tactics, because there are so many civilians."

Earlier in the Ramadi battle, the Iraqi security forces and their allies, backed by coalition airstrikes, were able to push relatively fast into largely depopulated streets. Now, the front line is relatively static.

On one side of a city street are Iraqi forces; on the other is ISIS, with an estimated 1,000 families they've dragged along with them as they've withdrawn into this holdout.

If the soldiers push into the area, they risk accidentally killing civilians. And if those civilians rush toward the Iraqi troops, they could become easy targets for ISIS.

"We're trying to rescue them," Mohammad says.

Every day, hundreds of civilians brave ISIS fire to come running across the front line, some waving white flags. Many die in the attempt, or are injured.

Outside one of the city's biggest mosques, there are an ambulance, stretchers and soldiers. The sound of weeping rises up above the din of aircraft and explosions. Four children, all about age 5, are lying on the stretchers. Counterterrorism forces are hastily applying iodine and bandages to their wounds.

"We came from Sofia," a sobbing little boy tells a soldier. "But another family came with us and they were hit by ISIS."

A 16-year-old who gives her name only as Jinan says the militants told her "they'd shoot anyone who tried to leave." Today an airstrike hit near the house where they were sheltering — which is how the children were injured — but in the ensuing confusion, they seized the chance to flee.

The soldiers tell us they take fleeing civilians to an improvised base on the southern edge of the city. They give medical aid, food and water and take the men away for questioning to see if they're involved with ISIS.

The women and children are gathered in another requisitioned house, a squat, gray building with the sound of weeping floating out of the broken windows.

"We ran away at dawn," Hashima Khalil tells me. She's 55 and ran 2 miles, barefoot. She can hardly stand up now.

"We've been drinking rainwater," she says.

Conditions in the city worsened during the seven months ISIS was in control, as security forces severed supply lines. Water, food and electricity have been cut off for three months.

"We were moved from place to place," she says. The extremists forced families to move with them as they withdrew gradually in the face of ongoing assaults by the Iraqi military. They threatened to blow up the houses of civilians who didn't comply, with the families inside.

Nearby, Barwari is on a rooftop, overseeing the detonation of roadside bombs and booby traps left by ISIS. A walkie-talkie on the table next to him blasts the radio message of the militants. The operation, he says gloomily, is not going well.

"Right now, we can't go inside Sofia," he says. "We worry that if they see us coming, they will rush to us and be hit."

Another officer says the operations will continue, but more slowly than they had hoped.

Although victory is not complete, most of Ramadi is now held by Iraqi security forces, and U.S. and Iraqi officials are already talking about pushing ISIS out of other cities.

Those cities, too, are crowded with civilians. The slow battle in Ramadi and the toll on its people seem likely to be replicated as the fight against ISIS in urban areas carries on in the months — and maybe years — ahead.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Iraqi declared victory against ISIS in the city of Ramadi a couple of weeks ago. But even if that is true in most of the city, clearing the last ISIS holdouts has been a bloody and exhausting task. NPR's Alice Fordham went to Ramadi, and she found that there is still heavy fighting, and civilians are running for their lives across enemy lines.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's early morning, and I'm heading into Ramadi with the Iraqi government counter-terror forces. The first thing that strikes me is the devastation after months of fighting.

As we get further in, the destruction is more complete. Most of the houses seem to have been hit by airstrikes - big buildings with roofs caved. The palm trees are - palm trees are destroyed. The walls are destroyed. Everything's kind of flattened.

And as we drive into the city center, it becomes clear the combat is still intense. Helicopters buzz overhead. They're passing every few minutes and laying down covering fire while warplanes for the U.S.-led coalition also launch attacks. We get to a place a few blocks from the front lines. There's a makeshift headquarters here. The special forces take me up to the roof.

From here, I can see a panorama of the city. The center of the city is not as badly damaged as the outside. But when I turn around and look a little bit toward the southeast, it's clear that the fighting is still going on. There's shelling from Iraqi army helicopters. There's coalition airstrikes, which are sending up huge clouds of smoke in the distance.

SGT. MAJ. RAED MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Down on a street littered with shell casings, Sgt. Maj. Raed Mohammad tells me why there's still so much fighting in a city where victory was declared against ISIS weeks ago.

MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says, "we're having to use different tactics now because there's so many civilians in the remaining ISIS-held area." Earlier in the Ramadi battle, the Iraqi military, backed by coalition airstrikes, was able to push fast into largely depopulated streets. Now, the front line is relatively static. On one side of a city road are Iraqi forces. On the other is ISIS, with maybe a thousand families they've dragged along with them as they've withdrawn into this last holdout.

MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "We're trying to rescue them," Mohammed says. Every day, hundreds of civilians come running across the front lines, dodging ISIS fire, waving white flags, trying to get to the security forces. Many die in the attempt or get injured. And we see some up the street. Outside one of the city's biggest mosques is an ambulance, stretchers, soldiers.

Standing outside the big mosque, and the soldiers are treating 1, 2, 3, 4 wounded children. They're putting iodine on their wounds. The kids are - they don't seem to be badly injured, except one little boy who's been hit in what looks like the base of his spine. They're obviously terrified.

When soldiers ask one little boy where he came from, he says they ran away from the ISIS-held area Sofia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: But another family was with them, and they were hit by ISIS and didn't make it. I ask a 16-year-old who gives her name only as Jinan, how they escaped.

JINAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: She says ISIS said they'd shoot anyone who tried to leave. Today, an airstrike hit nearby, which is how the children were injured. But in the confusion, they all seized the chance to flee. Right now, hundreds of civilians are running always like this every day. The soldiers take them to the improvised base on the outskirts. They give medical aid, food and water and take the men away for questioning to see if they're involved with ISIS, leaving the women and children. At that base, I speak with Hashima Ibrahim, who tells me she escaped at dawn.

HASHIMA IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: She ran two miles barefoot.

IBRAHIM: (Speaking foreign language).

FORDHAM: She says they've been drinking rainwater. Conditions in the city worsened dramatically during the seven months ISIS were in control, as security forces severed supply lines. Water, food and electricity supply have been cut off for three months.

IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: ISIS moved them from place to place as Iraqi security forces pushed into the city. The extremists said come with us or we'll blow up your house. Most of Ramadi is indeed now held by Iraqi security forces. But with thousands trapped in that last pocket of ISIS control, victory doesn't seem quite complete. U. S. and Iraqi officials are already talking about pushing ISIS out of other cities - crowded cities where progress will be slow and where ordinary people will, once again, be on the frontlines. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Ramadi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.