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U.S. Launches New Airstrikes To Protect Iraqi Dam

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. In Iraq, American forces have moved the air campaign into a new area. Early this morning in western Iraq, strikes targeted areas around a strategic dam in Anbar Province; the latest of more than 100 strikes against the Sunni militants now calling themselves the Islamic State. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Iraqi government asked the U.S. to launch strategic airstrikes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: If that dam would fall into ISL's hands or if that dam would be destroyed, the damages that that would cause would be very significant. And it would put a significant, additional and big risk into the mix in Iraq.

NEARY: NPR's Alice Fordham is in Baghdad and is here to tell us more. Thanks for joining us, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: My pleasure.

NEARY: What is this new target and why is it so important?

FORDHAM: Well, as we've heard, it's a big dam on the Euphrates River at a Haditha. Iraq is a big, dry country bisected by two big rivers - the Tigris and the Euphrates. So dams are strategically very important here to the Iraqis and to the United States, who has been watching Islamic State move in on a series of Iraqi dams over this last year. As we saw in northern Iraq, some of the first U.S. airstrikes last month were in support of attempts by Kurdish forces to retake the Mosul dam from these extremists.

NEARY: So how is this different from targets that have been struck so far?

FORDHAM: Well, thus far, the airstrikes have been mainly in the northern part of Iraq. So the Mosul dam, for example, is way up, more than 200 miles north of Baghdad. While this new target, the Haditha dam, is about 180 miles over to the west.

You could argue that the fight in the northern part of Iraq is in many ways a simpler fight than Anbar Province in the West. In the areas that have been struck so far around the Mosul dam, around Mount Sinjar where the Yazidi minority was besieged, these Sunni extremists - the Islamic State - don't really have a lot of popular support. And they've moved in very recently, especially in the Kurdish areas in the north and among Kurdish forces, with whom Americans have had a long and friendly relationship.

NEARY: And what makes Anbar more complicated?

FORDHAM: Anbar, which the province where the Haditha dam is, will be probably remembered not very fondly by many thousands of American soldiers who fought there. It's where the city of Falluja is, which was a real wellspring of anti-American fighters and Sunni extremism. And after the Americans pulled out of Iraq, a lot of that anger was redirected at the Iraqi government. So Anbar is almost all Sunni. Those Sunnis felt marginalized by the government, which is mostly Shiite. And they have months of peaceful protests, which met with a violent response.

So when the Islamic State came to Anbar, they actually had a modicum of popular support. And they're entrenched. They've been there nine months, more or less. So the United States, by getting involved in airstrikes there, is getting involved in a more complicated situation and perception will be very important. So an airstrike by American forces in support of Iraqi forces who are also not very popular there, there's a risk that it might not be greeted so positively by the local population.

In fact, officials from Haditha told us this morning that a lot of people fled their homes in that area after the airstrike happened. They were afraid. On the other hand, it's been pointed out that the local people in Anbar, especially tribal sheikhs there who are very influential, might be more likely to support the Iraqi government to fight against the Islamic State if the American military shows that they are backing those forces.

NEARY: And are there any other different factors in this now - the terrain?

FORDHAM: Yeah. I think the battlefield is different. It's just tough to fight there. There isn't a front line. There's more of a patchwork of territory that has been changing hands, you know. It's a war of attrition there, which analysts and western officials have consistently said can't be solved only by military action. There has to be a political solution.

NEARY: And, Alice, U.S. officials have been traveling around the world trying to build international support for this push against extremism, but do they have support in the region?

FORDHAM: Well, the Arab League is meeting in Cairo today. The secretary general, Nabil Elaraby, has called for a comprehensive confrontation against the militants. And this comes after John Kerry called Elaraby yesterday to discuss the issue. So I think the U.S. is canvassing for broad Arab support for their moves.

NEARY: NPR's Alice Fordham in Baghdad. Thanks so much, Alice.

FORDHAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.