Fleeing and fighting Islamic State forces in Anbar province

After being driven out of Tikrit, the Islamic State has renewed its push into Western Anbar province. The government in Baghdad is wary of letting in fleeing families, seeing displaced people from IS strongholds as security risks. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces are preparing for a tough battle in Garma. Special correspondent Jane Arraf reports.

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    The U.S.-led coalition today launched 28 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State group targets. And, in Iraq, I.S. positions were struck in Anbar province, where the militants are strongest.

    NewsHour special correspondent Jane Arraf reports now from Anbar on a battle to reclaim Iraq's largest province.


    The latest wave of Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State group. This time, it's in the Sunni heartland of al-Anbar province.

    Driven out of Tikrit, the group, also known as ISIS, has made a renewed push into western Anbar province and its capital, Ramadi. These families are the tip of a huge humanitarian crisis, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in Iraq's biggest province forced out by the conflict, joining two million Iraqis already displaced.

    Fatima has moved three times since she left her home in Haditha in western al-Anbar last year, always just one step ahead of the fighting.

  • FATIMA MAHMOUD AWADH (through interpreter):

    They were striking us with rockets. There were explosions in the houses. There were houses being hit during the airstrikes at night. Finally, we had to leave.


    The Iraqi government sees these people as a potential security risk. ISIS has controlled large parts of Anbar for most of the year, and the government is wary of letting in people from ISIS strongholds.

    These people have managed to flee Ramadi and the ISIS onslaught. But they're not safe yet. To actually get to Baghdad, they have to prove that they have a sponsor to vouch for them. The problem is that some of these families have now moved three and four times, and they have run out of relatives to stay with.

    When we met him, this Ramadi resident had been waiting here for two days in the hope someone would sponsor him. The government later said it would allow families to enter without a sponsor, but it would keep out young single men.

    Um Ibrahim saw two of her sons married just two days ago. The wedding party took place in a prefabricated trailer. She says tribal leaders and the Iraqi government have abandoned them.

    "This is the only thing we ever got from them," she says, holding up a piece of chocolate. "I'm going to save it as a souvenir."

    The Interior Ministry says it is concerned that ISIS operatives could be hiding among displaced people. In Baghdad, the Interior Ministry paraded the latest ISIS suspects. These, they say, have confessed to attacks against security forces and involvement in a bomb-making ring.

    On the floor, police have arranged the explosives they have captured from a site near Baghdad. They include bombs designed to detonate when a door is opened or when a car drives over them. The western edge of the battle against ISIS is in Iraq's vast Anbar province, stretching from the edge of Baghdad all the way to the Jordanian, Saudi and Syrian borders.

    Just 35 miles from Baghdad is Fallujah, where U.S. soldiers and Marines in 2004 faced the fiercest urban fighting since Vietnam. The enemy then was al-Qaida. Now it's a group even more difficult to fight. ISIS has reemerged near Garma, between Fallujah and the Iraqi capital.

    BRIG. GEN. SAAD MAAN, Iraqi Ministry of Interior spokesman: Now we achieved the first goal, which we prevent the enemy to target our people to Baghdad. The second step is to go forward to liberate the center of al-Garma.


    But the day after Iraqi forces launched that offensive last week, they were pushed back by ISIS fighters.

    The battle in Anbar has stalled over the role of Shia militias in this tribal, almost entirely Sunni process. The U.S. is wary of getting drawn again into such a complicated process. It's too dangerous even for the provincial governor to stay in Anbar. After surviving the latest assassination attempt in Ramadi, Suhaib al-Rawi spoke to us from an emergency office set up in Baghdad.

    GEN. SUHAIB AL-RAWI, al-Anbar Province, Iraq (through interpreter): The situation is critical. After the operations that took place in Tikrit, ISIS is focusing hugely on Anbar and Ramadi to create a morale boost with a victory there. The security forces are fighting fierce battles and suffering quite substantial losses. There are Iraqi and coalition airstrikes, but they are not enough.


    Anbar is in the grip of war. This school is now an army outpost.

    At this forward operating base, soldiers pulling security are on alert for snipers and suicide bombers. Behind me is the city of Garma. The Iraqi army and its allies have been advancing forward and pushing ISIS back, until they're now within about three miles from the city. Once they take Garma, they believe they can push on to Fallujah.


    This Iraqi army colonel explains that they need to take Garma because it's a main supply route for ISIS. ISIS fighters are like gangsters, he says.

  • COL. ALI HUSSEIN AL-DURRAJI, Iraqi Army (through interpreter):

    We are trying to surround Garma because Garma is the access point. If we take Garma — and, God willing, we will take it — then ISIS will be locked in, finished.


    After that, he says, is Fallujah, a city won and lost twice since 2003. Soldiers here are expecting this battle to be even tougher.

    Jane Arraf for PBS NewsHour near Garma, Iraq.