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Iraqi Fighters Continue Push Toward ISIS Held City Of Mosul

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

So how is the Mosul operation going after the first week? For a broad look at this offensive, we are joined now by Jessica Lewis McFate. She's research director at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington D.C. Thanks for being with us.

JESSICA LEWIS MCFATE: Thank you so much for having me.

MCEVERS: So the U.S. and Iraqi governments say that the battle for Mosul is going well. Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition that's fighting ISIS, said in a tweet today, all objectives have been met thus far. What is your assessment of how this operation is going?

MCFATE: Well, tactically and operationally, it is going well. The counteroffensive against ISIS with coalition members on the ground and in the air is proceeding north, east and south of Mosul and are making significant gains. So the offensive is proceeding now towards the outskirts of Mosul on the east side, which is a significant progress rate.

MCEVERS: You talk about how they're closing in from the north, east and south, but when - you know, when you look at the maps of this, we're seeing that there's not a whole lot going on in the west. And that of course would be the way that presumably ISIS fighters could escape from Mosul and head into Syria. Why are they letting these fighters get away that way? Why are they not closing that corridor?

MCFATE: Well, the majority of what exists outside of Mosul in the west is open desert. So on the one hand, it is a good planning assumption that if ISIS tries to withdraw by fleeing into the desert, that that withdrawal will be visible from the air...

MCEVERS: I see.

MCFATE: ...And it will be possible to strike. The exception of course is any significant movement of refugees fleeing into Syria from Mosul with whom ISIS could also mask its own escape. And it is a vulnerability in the operation that ISIS could withdraw. However, I do think it is also appropriate to recognize that reclaiming Mosul is the significant objective of the operation regardless of whether or not all ISIS members are contained there.

MCEVERS: We just heard in Alice Fordham's report from villagers near Mosul, and they talked about these tunnels between villages to smuggle ISIS fighters, to smuggle weapons. How much of a concern is that for Iraqi forces and their allies?

MCFATE: Well, tunnels first and foremost are going to slow down the operation. As fighters are trying to retake villages and finding tunnel networks that also had to be cleared, it is literally a subterranean war that has to be fought on the ground, and that could cause various portions of the operation to proceed more slowly.

If tunnels are not sufficiently cleared, it could also mean that counter-ISIS forces end up surrounded by ISIS forces...

MCEVERS: Right.

MCFATE: If ISIS forces are rolled over too quickly and allowed to attack friendly forces from two directions, that of course means that clearing the tunnels is very important.

MCEVERS: ISIS has been launching counter attacks in recent days, most notably in the city of Kirkuk, which is not part of this offensive. Why would they take fighters away from Mosul?

MCFATE: ISIS has fighters in place throughout Iraq and throughout Syria and honestly in other places in the region who clearly had been lying in wait for the Mosul counter-offensive to begin in order to participate in Mosul's strategic defense. So ISIS likely did not send fighters to Kirkuk. It had fighters there, and it deployed them in conjunction with the Mosul offensive.

So we see that ISIS is very clearly trying to divert attention away from the Mosul operation, perhaps even in the case of Kurkuk, trying to draw Kurdish Peshmerga forces away from Mosul and back to the defense of Kirkuk. We haven't seen yet whether or not ISIS will be successful.

MCEVERS: Jessica Lewis McFate is research director at the Institute for the Study of War. Thank you.

MCFATE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.