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Thousands Who Run, Few Who Fight: A Journalist On Ramadi's Fall

Iraqi anti-terrorism forces patrol in central Ramadi, Iraq, on April 18. A month later, the city fell to the self-declared Iraqi State. Ayman Oghanna, a journalist who was embedded with Iraqi Special Forces in the city, says the Special Forces are capable precision fighters — but are being asked to fill the role of an entire military.

More than a week ago, the Iraqi city of Ramadi, in Anbar province, was taken by the self-declared Islamic State.

The fall of that key city wasn't just a setback for Iraq: It was also a blow to the current U.S. strategy of trying to contain ISIS through air strikes.

Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militias allied with the Iraqi government continue to move against ISIS in Anbar Province. The battles bring back American memories. Some of the fiercest fighting in the Iraq War ocurred there, and many Americans died trying to win back the city of Ramadi from Sunni insurgents.

Photojournalist Ayman Oghanna was in Ramadi, embedded with Iraqi special forces just 48 hours before the city fell. He spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about what he saw on the ground.

Scott Simon: U.S. Secretary of Defense [Ash] Carter said last weekend that Iraqi forces in Ramadi ... had "no will to fight." Was that your impression?

Ayman Oghanna: No, that's totally false. The unit I was embedded with, the Golden Division, were Iraq special forces, and they were the most capable, disciplined military organization in the history of the modern Iraqi state. And in many ways they were failed perhaps more by America's strategy than by their own will to fight. ...

When the so-called Islamic State had its offensive through Iraq last year, the regular Iraqi army and police crumbed and melted away. In their place, the only effective fighting force, and the fighting force that was closest to the United States, was the Golden Division and ISOF, Iraqi Special Forces, set up by the U.S. Special Forces.

But you have to understand that a Special Forces unit is meant to do certain things. They are guys you want to use for precision offensive operations, like, you know, helicoptering into Syria and taking some guy out. But since the Iraqi army crumbled they were basically forced to do the job of the entire military. And that included being spread very thinly over a huge area, holding defensive positions, against ISIS. When I was on the ground with them they complained about a lack of U.S. air strikes. And when I was there I did not see many air strikes.

There have been numerous press accounts that suggested that Iraqi forces had, by some estimates, a 10-to-1 advantage over ISIS.

The numbers, at this point, are irrelevant. The numbers that matter ... who are the numbers that are going to stay there and fight ISIS? And from the beginning there might be however many thousand policeman and Army, but they are not to be trusted. Every time that they have been faced with an ISIS offensive they have fled.

And the only people who remained behind were Iraq's Golden Division — the ISOF, their Special Forces. And their numbers are far smaller.

So at the strategic level, advice you might proffer to U.S. forces would be to increase the number of air strikes? Or what, exactly?

It's all very well for there now to be a debate in the United States about what level of support we need to provide our partners on the ground. But this was a conversation and a debate that should have happened a year ago. We haven't really done much, militarily, to support our partners. Iran has.

And maybe, sure, we have a debate and 12 months from now, we say, "Let's commit 10,000 U.S. Army Rangers and Special Forces on the ground to help our allies," but at that point the Iraqis might be like, "No, actually ... the Iranians [have] taken care of everything for us."

You're probably familiar enough with the U.S. policy debate to know that for a lot of Americans, priority No. 1. is, "No American boots on the ground."


Well, because a lot of Americans feel that enough Americans have died for Iraq already.

Died for what?

I think a lot of American servicemen and their families who lost lives and comrades in Iraq are feeling pretty disappointed that we're pulling out and almost letting them die in vain by not following through.

I mean, make no mistake, we are at war with the so-called Islamic State. Even if you don't think so, the Islamic State thinks that it's at war with us. And it wants to strike us everywhere it can. Inside America, inside Europe. And so we either fight them in Syria and Iraq, or we fight them somewhere else.

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