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U.S. Service Member Killed By IED Was Helping Iraq In Push To Retake Mosul

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

An American sailor was killed yesterday in Iraq. Chief Petty Officer Jason Finan of Anaheim, Calif., died during the Iraqi-led offensive to retake Mosul. It is the largest city still held by ISIS. Finan is the first U.S. service member to be killed in the Mosul offensive. And here to tell us more about what happened is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Hi there, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So what can you tell us about Jason Finan?

BOWMAN: Well, he was a bomb disposal sailor based in the San Diego area. He was 34. And we're told his vehicle ran over a roadside bomb, and he died as he was being medevacked to a hospital. Now, again, he was the first American killed in this Mosul operation, which started on Monday. And there were more than 100 American advisers in northern Mosul area with the Kurdish and Iraqi forces.

MCEVERS: I guess we have to ask, what was an American service member doing so close to the fight? I mean, the White House says they're not supposed to be combat forces. They're supposed to just be advising and assisting, right?

BOWMAN: Right, they are. But the Pentagon says they're still in harm's way, and that's because there's no clear front line. And there are multiple approaches to Mosul. And these small American teams are helping in the field, advising and everything from calling in artillery and airstrikes, clearing the roadside bombs. We've learned from our colleague Alice Fordham, who's in northern Iraq, that Iraqi troops are seeing more complex and powerful bombs. Some are strung together into what are called daisy chains. And Iraqi bomb disposal technicians are having trouble detecting them.

Now also, it appears ISIS fighters are hiding some of their car and truck bombs so they don't get struck by U.S. warplanes. And ISIS appears to be using them at the last moment. Inside a village, one Kurdish soldier told Alice, when we advance, they send a bomb to us.

MCEVERS: And that gives us some picture of how this is going. But give us a bigger picture of how the Mosul offensive is working out for Iraqi forces and their allies.

BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon says the Iraqis are on schedule. But clearly, there is a tough ISIS resistance in some areas. Right now, Iraqis are anywhere from 6 to 10 miles outside the city, and it could take a week, two weeks, maybe even longer for them to reach Mosul. Nobody really knows at this point. Now, the Iraqis outnumber ISIS fighters around 20 to 1. And the U.S. is providing a lot of the airstrikes, so they're hitting everything from ISIS buildings and command centers to trucks, to artillery, even sniper positions they're taking out.

But even when the Iraqi forces reach Mosul, Kelly, they could - that could be the toughest fight yet because then you're talking urban warfare, building-to-building fights. You have a well dug-in enemy. They've created berms and, you know, more bombs along the way, inside the city. And also, there are hundreds of thousands of civilians in Mosul - some say upwards of a million. So that's a tough scenario for any offensive force.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Thank you very much.

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