Al-Qaida group takes control of central Fallujah

The Iraq army shelled the city of Fallujah on Saturday in attempts to take back control from the Al-Qaida affiliated group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has also overrun the town of Ramadi. Liz Sly of the Washington Post reports from Beirut, Lebanon.


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HARI SREENIVASAN: And now to Iraq where a remarkable story is playing out in the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, where American troops fought some of the most intense battles of the war a decade ago. Members of the Al Qaeda affiliated group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, reportedly have overrun both cities. The Washington Post's Liz Sly has been reporting the story from Beirut, Lebanon and joins us from there via Skype. So Liz, what happened yesterday? What's happening today?

LIZ SLY: Well yesterday we saw the fighters of this Al Qaeda affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, basically claim that they were in control of Fallujah. And it does look like there as much in control of that city as anyone else. They've raised their flag over their town and they told the citizens they're in control, and the Iraqi army is outside of town. Today we saw the Iraqi army shelling the town and seemingly some clashes on the outskirts in which they were trying to get back into the town, which as far as I can gather from the conversation I've had with people in Fallujah, they have not been able to re-enter as of now. 

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so yesterday the Iraqi military and police just withdrew as soon as they saw ISIS was here?

LIZ SLY: Basically, yes, this was the combination of some violent events over the previous several days in which the Iraqi army and security forces were forced to flee from this two towns, Fallujah and Ramadi. And they've had some successes getting back into Ramadi, but not in Fallujah.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how has the situation in Fallujah changed since the U.S. withdrew troops?

LIZ SLY: Well the U.S. withdrew slowly over a period of time and they were handing power over the Iraqi security forces. But one of the bigger pictures that has gone on in that time, is the government Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has really not been particularly inclusive to the Sunni communities in the Sunni areas, and that has caused a lot of resentment to the central government. So what you're seeing is a continuation of the sectarian tensions that were stirred up by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And a central failure of the central government to include these areas in the politics of the country in a way that might have calmed some of these tensions down. So there's a lot of different and complicated things going on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Has the situation in Syria next door made it easier for the Islamic movement of, what was it, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to try and establish a foothold in Ramadi and Fallujah?

LIZ SLY: Well, absolutely because they have taken over provinces or territory in provinces bordering Iraq and that has given them freedom of movement, a place where they can arm and regroup and train people, and that has definitely made it much easier for them to assert themselves again in these Iraqi provinces from which the American troops had thought they had driven them out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are we seeing a splintering of Iraq?

LIZ SLY: Yes I think we're seeing a splintering of the whole region at the moment. The region is fragmenting along many, many different fault lines that were always there, but in the absence of strong central governments anywhere in the region, 
extremists are asserting themselves in this area or that. Other groups are asserting themselves here and there. And yeah the whole region is fragmenting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And how does that effect the United States?

LIZ SLY: The US troops put a lot, they put a lot of blood on the lines to defend the state of Iraq, a lot of money was spent. But the Obama administration has publicly declared a wish to not be involved in the Middle East as previous U.S. administrations were. And the results of that is obviously a lot of turmoil and upheaval because America was the biggest power in this region. 

HARI SREENIVASAN: Liz Sly of the Washington Post joining us via Skype from Beirut. Thanks so much.

LIZ SLY: Thank you.