Insurgents are in a standoff with Iraqi forces over control of Fallujah

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Our next story is also about a place where government forces have lost control but it's in a completely different part of the world. This is about the city of Fallujah in Iraq. American troops paid a very high price a decade ago to rest Fallujah from insurgents linked to Al-Qaeda. Then came the US withdrawal and the handover to Iraqi forces. Today many American vets are wondering "what was the point?" The insurgents returned this winter to seize the city once again. Reporter Jane Arraf is one of the few foreign journalists in Iraq covering the story.

Jane Arraf: We sort've took our eye off the ball but in the mean time, all of those fighters who US troops were fighting, as well as a whole range other influences, particularly the Syrian conflict next door, have all gathered and now there is, again, a war in Fallujah. I think we remember those terrible images, the American contractors hung from the iron bridge, a city that was essentially leveled, with the worst losses of US forces in Anbar province in the entire war and now that kind of fighting, the ferocity of the fighting, is happening again but it's really happening outside the public eye.

Werman: When you say ferocious fighting, when you say there's a war going on in Fallujah, what does that actually mean?

Arraf: What it means in this case is that the Iraqi army has surrounded Fallujah. Nobody is getting in or out. It's very hard for aid to get in. The enemy that they say they're fighting, and they've been hammering on about this, is that they believe this is a fight to the death with Al-Qaeda. There are also tribal fighters involved and this is what makes it so complicated. Some of these tribes want to topple the Shiite-led government. It's become a very sectarian fight. Some of the tribes are fighting with the government.

But really, civilians are caught in between and also in there, crucially, is Al-Qaeda. A new and, if you will, improved version of Al-Qaeda and the alliance that Al-Qaeda has formed in the past few years have made it much more effective. People who have visuals and who are keeping track of what's happening militarily say that apart from the explosives, the roadside bombs, the suicide bombers, there are very effective military snipers which indicates there is a substantial component of former Iraqi army generals involved in this.

Werman: If the Iraqi army can't control Fallujah, how big of a deal would it be if the city fell to these militants?

Arraf: It would be a huge, huge, huge, huge deal. It would be a huge deal because Fallujah, basically we have to remember, is less than 40 miles from the center of Baghdad. Fallujah is part of the biggest Iraqi province. It is where Al-Qaeda has been coming from through Syria since 2003. It also has links with other Sunni provinces. The really big problem here is this isn't just Al-Qaeda. This is an Iraqi problem and part of it is because the Sunni community in general has felt like it isn't a part of the country. It's felt that its citizens are arrested in mass arrests, put in jail, tortured into confessions and then executed in alarming numbers.

When you talk to the people there, Al-Qaeda has not flourished again because the people love them or because the people agree with their ideology. They flourished because people in Ramadi, in Fallujah are absolutely terrified. They're not sure that the Iraqi forces are strong enough to protest them, even if they wanted to. They're essentially waiting to see what happens. You aren't going to find people who are going to say "It's Al-Qaeda." They'll say "These men have masks on their faces, we don't know who they are. We don't ask questions." It's terrifying all around, any scenario.

Werman: Reporter Jane Arraf in Baghdad, telling us about the fighting in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Thanks very much Jane.

Arraf: Thanks Marco.