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Recent Attacks Highlight Difficulty In Combating ISIS

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Some gains this week in the war against the self-declared Islamic state, or ISIS. The Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani, long fought over, was finally cleared of militants. And the Iraqi army said they had pushed ISIS out of the eastern province of Diyala, but there's still a lot of fighting. From Baghdad, NPR's Alice Fordham joins us. Alice, what's happened in the last couple of days?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: We have seen a spasm of violence, actually in several places in Iraq, but notably around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the North. Yesterday, ISIS staged an attack on it from three sides. And we've seen a lot of violence south of the city, but Kirkuk itself has until recently been relatively calm. But yesterday there was a big battle. A senior commander was killed.

Today, there are reports that the man who replaced him was also killed by a sniper. There were 10 American airstrikes there yesterday, which hit many ISIS vehicles and prepared car bombs, but ISIS still briefly held a small oil field before being pushed out. And dozens of the Iraqi-Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, were killed.

RATH: So what does this tell us about the state of the war against ISIS?

FORDHAM: I think it gives us a bit of pause and maybe a bit of perspective. There was an announcement from the Pentagon this morning saying that an ISIS member described as a chemical weapons expert was killed, with the spokesman adding that people now realize that ISIS aren't ten feet tall, that the coalition is making progress.

However, we are now more than seven months into this military campaign. It's true that ISIS haven't taken any more major cities, but they still hold a lot of territory and, crucially, they make bold, aggressive moves like these ones. And sometimes the optimism is proven to have slightly shaky grounds. You know, Iraqi officials, as you said, announced the liberation of the province of Diyala this week, but that was followed by a suicide bombing that killed several people there.

And I think it's also worth noting that a lot of the fighting that was done there was by Shiite militias that support the government but now stand accused of alleged unlawful killings of Sunni civilians. So we're still seeing a lot of brutal often sectarian-tinged fighting here on the ground.

RATH: What about Syria? Are there gains being made against ISIS there?

FORDHAM: The town of Kobani there had become, you know, so emblematic of the fight against ISIS that the celebrations there this week were, I think, powerful to lots of people. But just this evening, we have received word that a video has been released - it's not yet verified - apparently showing the beheading of a Japanese hostage who we believed was being held in Syria. A journalist, Kenji Goto - there had been a hostage negotiation situation with him, which Japanese officials said had been deadlocked. And it now seems that, subject to verification, he may, in fact, have been killed. They're holding a second hostage, a Jordanian. It's a tense time for the governments of both of those countries.

RATH: That's NPR's Alice Fordham in Baghdad. Alice, thanks very much.

FORDHAM: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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