Violence has reignited in western Iraq, with Islamist fighters taking over much of Anbar province three months ago. A renegade al-Qaida group has set up its headquarters in Fallujah — the city where hundreds of U.S. soldiers died a decade ago, trying to wrest it from insurgent control.
But this time, the enemy isn't the U.S. and it's not just extremists fighting. Ordinary Sunnis in Anbar, furious at what they call years of discrimination by the Shiite-dominated government, have joined the militants' battle against the Iraqi army.
There's another difference: This group has better training and weapons, drawing strength and fighters from the chaos across the border in Syria, where it is also active.
In northern Iraq, I meet a group of young men who are among the 400,000 people who have fled the fighting in Anbar.
They say their brothers, cousins and friends are among those fighting against the army in Anbar — not because they like al-Qaida, but because they hate the Iraqi army so much. They've heeded the call by tribal sheiks that each family leave one son behind to fight.
The men who have fled are staying in a faded tourist hotel in the mountain resort of Shaqlawa. Piled into a room full of mattresses, smelling of socks and gas heaters, these Sunnis are brimming over with stories that explain why they would fight their own government.
"In Fallujah, the soldiers would come at night, take people away and leave," says Taha Fadel. Men and women would be detained for long periods without charge, and tortured, he alleges.
For more than a year, they held huge protests every Friday, demanding that the Shiite-dominated government address their issues. There were tents set up with permanent sit-ins in Fallujah and in the provincial capital of Ramadi.
Then, in December last year, the army moved in. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said members of al-Qaida were hiding in the camps. The young men in the smelly hotel room say they're not al-Qaida — they're civilians whose homes were leveled out of nowhere.
Ihab Ibrahim, a craftsman, shows a video on his cellphone that he says was his home. Now, it's rubble. The army fired two shells at it five minutes after the family left, he claims.
These young men deny that there are any extremists fighting in Anbar — they say it's all tribal revolutionaries.
'They Want To Overthrow The Region'
But U.S. officials say several hundred heavily armed men are the main fighting force for the militant group known as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And ISIS itself seems to confirm that assessment with victory videos that it posts online.
Between the extremists and the tribal fighters, the group has been able to hold on to much of Anbar — and is even creeping east to Baghdad and the provinces around it. Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad was evacuated this week as they approached — out of fears it could be overrun by Sunni insurgents.
In Baghdad, I run into the funeral of a young soldier in the Shiite suburb of Kadhimiya.
"May God have mercy on his soul," intones a singer whose doleful voice pours out of speakers into the dusty chaos of the street.
The soldier's brother, Issam Ghazi, talks about how his brother was killed by extremists in Salahaddine province north of Baghdad. He's a soldier, too, and says ISIS is more fearsome than ever.
"There is a significant increase in operations, more than before," he says. "Now jihad has spread in Iraq on a wider scale; they want to overthrow the region."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now those Sunni militants fighting that we just heard about have flourished thanks to the chaos next door in Syria. Earlier this year they recaptured Fallujah, an important city where the U.S. military lost hundreds of troops in intense battles a decade ago. The fighters are also getting crucial support from Sunni civilians who are bitter over their treatment by Iraq's Shiite-led government.
NPR's Alice Fordham was recently in Iraq and she sent this report.
ABDULLAH: (foreign language spoken)
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: This man is a teacher from Fallujah. But I meet him in the quiet, even boring, northern city of Erbil. He lives here now because four months ago he woke up to find himself caught in crossfire between the Iraqi army and Islamist fighters.
ABDULLAH: (through translator) It turned violent overnight, as they say. One day, at sunset, there was nothing happening. Then, at dawn, the violence started. So you couldn't tell which side had started the violence, the army or the terrorist cell.
FORDHAM: The mortars that thumped around him heralded the beginning of a bloodbath in the province of Anbar. Islamist fighters took over. They post videos online of victory parades like this one. The teacher, who is afraid to give his name, says there's no doubt this group is an offshoot of the al-Qaida that Americans battled to keep out of Fallujah. Since American forces withdrew in 2012, the group has made a comeback.
And it's powerful in Syria just over the border, too. They have better training and weapons now, but that's not the only difference. When the Americans were fighting here...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) The target was clear and the fighters knew who they were targeting. And the occupying forces also knew who they were retaliating against.
FORDHAM: But now, both the extremists and the Iraqi army fighting them have rallied thousands of civilians to their cause. Hundreds of thousands have fled. Many families have come to the resort town of Shaqlawa. In one rundown hotel here where garish paint is rotting, every room is full. Laundry hangs on the balconies and there's a bread oven under that stairs.
The young men here say that their friends and relatives are also battling the army in Anbar. Not because they like al-Qaida, but because they hate the army so much.
TALHA FADEL: (Through interpreter) In Fallujah, the soldiers would come at night, take people away and leave.
FORDHAM: That's Talha Fadel(ph) who's a Sunni Muslim like most everyone in Anbar. He says that the Shiite-dominated army and government made enemies of the Sunni tribes. To make the point, the guys call a friend they say is a fighter there.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (foreign language spoken)
FORDHAM: He says he a son of the tribe and he's going to keep fighting the army. But the tribes are divided. In Baghdad, I meet Harab al-Taiz(ph) in the mansion of his uncle, a tribal sheik.
Al-Taiz's dad was killed by al-Qaida in 2006 and he's fighting alongside the army to slaughter Islamists in revenge.
HARAB AL-TAIZ: (Through interpreter) I mean, he comes with this beard and his Afghan clothing and his (unintelligible) and he's coming to strike. Who is he coming to strike, anyway? A Jew or a Muslim? A Muslim he's coming to kill. What am I supposed to do? Give him flowers? Stand up to him, of course.
FORDHAM: He shows cell phone pictures of corpses. He says they're extremists he killed. Islamists also post pictures of dead mutilated soldiers on social media, some officials privately estimate 2,000 of the security forces may have died since January. Across town, I run into a funeral. In the dusty back streets of Kazamir(ph), a poor Shiite suburb of Baghdad, there's a funeral taking place.
The young man who died has his picture in uniform at the front of the crowd of mourners. There are pink and yellow flowers on either side of the picture and the brother and the friends of the man who died say that they're going to far too many funerals of young men like this, soldiers, who've died at the hands of al-Qaida. The young soldier died after militants ambushed a checkpoint in Saladim Province, North of Baghdad, says his brother, Istal Razi(ph), who is also a soldier.
Since the group that used to be al-Qaida in Iraq metastasized into Syria, the adversary is more powerful, he says.
ISTAL RAZI: (Through interpreter) There is a significant increase in operations, more than before. Now jihad has spread in Iraq on a wider scale. They want to overthrow the region. Their ideas, their remnants, all those things, they want to repeat them all over again. They are building an Islamist state, but they are not Muslims.
FORDHAM: The Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vows to defeat terrorism. He wants to win over the Sunnis of Anbar, offering to employ tens of thousands of them as soldiers. But fighting still rages and it's been announced that national elections planned to the end of the month will not happen in Anbar. Alice Fordham, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.