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Iraqi Prime Minister Celebrates Defeat Of ISIS, But Still Faces Pressure


Iraq is celebrating the defeat of ISIS. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi over the weekend declared December 10 the country's newest national holiday. He presided over a huge military parade in Baghdad with troops and tanks.

NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from Baghdad now to talk about this and what is ahead for Iraq. Hello, Jane.


MCEVERS: So when Iraq says it has defeated ISIS, what does that actually mean?

ARRAF: Well, it means first of all, I guess, and most importantly that major combat is indeed over. And we'll remember that this is the group that controlled a third of the country...


ARRAF: ...Three years ago. It's now been driven out of all of the cities - Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul - and it's been driven out of the desert where it took refuge and, crucially, those areas around the Syrian border. So apart from small pockets, it's now eradicated basically on both sides of that border. So it is truly a very big deal.

MCEVERS: I think it's really important just to remind people, I mean, how difficult it was to get to this moment, right?

ARRAF: You're absolutely right 'cause although everyone does love a parade, it wasn't about the parade. It was about the fact that they almost never got here. I mean, ISIS really did at one point threaten the existence of Iraq and...


ARRAF: ...The Kurdistan region. So when ISIS moved in, entire army divisions collapsed. They retreated rather than fight. And the Kurdish forces, as you'll recall, stepped up. And they fought ISIS in the north. And then the U.S. stepped in first of all to protect Iraqi - sorry, American - interests, and then to try to protect the Yazidis, who were being faced with genocide, that small religious minority. It was a very, very difficult fight with a huge civilian cost and a huge cost of Iraqi forces. I was in Mosul the day it was liberated. And I saw Iraqi army officers sobbing because they had lost so much and it had taken that much to get to this point.

MCEVERS: Wow. You know, some of the fighting was also done by these Shiite paramilitary groups who were answering a religious call. What has happened to those militias?

ARRAF: That is the big question and the big test because they're not going away. So they answered the call of a top religious leader here who said, it is your religious duty to go and fight. And they did. They went out and fought. And they pushed ISIS back in central Iraq. But it's a huge array of groups. It's about 60 of them. So there are some of the major Iranian-backed militias. There are lots of other groups that are less disciplined. And what the prime minister, Prime Minister al-Abadi, wants to do now, Haider al-Abadi, is tell these groups that they have to give up their weapons because the war is over.


ARRAF: You can be peaceful now. Not all of them are going to do that. And the ones that are going to do that, like Muqtada Sadr's forces, the Shia cleric - he says that he needs jobs for all those people, which makes sense, but it is a really tall order.

MCEVERS: It's not easy. Has this victory, though, made Haider al-Abadi more popular with Iraqis?

ARRAF: It really has. If you define Iraq as Iraq without the Kurdistan region of it where he's not so popular...


ARRAF: ...It has definitely put him in a better place for the elections coming up next year. He got the army back. He reconstituted them. They took back territory from ISIS. And they took back territory from the Kurds, territory the Kurds had moved into when ISIS came in. He's expected to run for a second term. And he's well-placed to do that. But there are still a lot of challenges. In many ways, this is really just the start of Iraq having to reinvent itself now that ISIS has gone.

MCEVERS: NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad, thank you so much.

ARRAF: Thank you, Kelly.


Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.