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Trapped By ISIS, Fallujah Residents Desperate For Aid

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's get a little context now for what we've just heard. We've reached Loveday Morris. She is the Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post. Welcome to the program.

LOVEDAY MORRIS: Hi, thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Basic facts first, how many people are left in Fallujah given that many people have fled?

MORRIS: Well, there are no completely accurate numbers on that. But the estimates are somewhere between 30 and 60,000 people. A huge amount of people have fled over the last two years. It used to be a city with a population of about 300,000.

INSKEEP: Now, is that an accurate description we just heard of Iraqi government tactics? Because it was alleged there that the government assumes that anybody still left in Fallujah is a member of ISIS and therefore a fair target.

MORRIS: I think to a certain extent, there's been a lot of criticism of the indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling on the city, a lot of reports of civilian casualties. There is an attitude within other parts of Iraq that Fallujahns are sympathetic to ISIS and their causes. That is a problem for sure. And when it comes to government tactics, the city has been cordoned off and slowly sort of choked off for months and months now.

INSKEEP: Why is the government taking this approach of a siege?

MORRIS: Well, Fallujah is pretty close to Baghdad. They want to isolate it but haven't been able to go in and take it. I mean, I think their tactic is choke them off.

INSKEEP: I'm reminded that U.S. Forces went in to take Fallujah once upon a time, and it was brutal house-to-house combat. I suppose we're hearing the result when Iraqi forces decide not to do that and simply stand off and bomb the place.

MORRIS: Right. I mean, there's a debate in Iraq at the moment whether to go into Fallujah or whether to leave it until after a Mosul offensive. There's quite a push, definitely among the local counsel in Anbar, to have an operation for Fallujah soon because they think that would help the humanitarian situation in a way. But there needs to be an end to this siege and and end to ISIS rule.

INSKEEP: Is there a history of trouble between Fallujah and the broader national government?

MORRIS: Absolutely. I mean, Fallujah for a long time has been known as a city that's a very difficult to control. Even in the Saddam era, Saddam had problems controlling the tribes there. So post-2003, people felt very disenfranchised. And Fallujah is a largely Sunni town. The government in Baghdad is Shia-led. Fallujah was one place where post-2003 al-Qaida really gained - gained a foothold. Then under Nouri al-Maliki the relationship was again problematic. You had big protests in Fallujah among the Sunnis in the year leading up to ISIS taking over. So yeah, it's not an easy relationship.

INSKEEP: How has the government done more broadly - this Shia-dominated government - at reassuring Sunnis that it's on their side?

MORRIS: So when Abadi's new government came in, there were a lot of promises to the Sunnis when it came to including them in government and also reforming some laws in Iraq, which have really been perceived and used to persecute Sunnis. There are anti-terrorism laws that have been used arbitrarily for arrests. Some of the demands of Sunnis initially when coming into government - into the coalition government - were that some of these things would be changed. And there's really been no change on that. Now, on top of all that, we've got death and war. It's really not an easy time for Sunnis in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Loveday Morris of The Washington Post in Baghdad, thanks very much.

MORRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.