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Fight Slows Down After Iraqi Forces Enter ISIS-Held City Of Mosul

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Iraq, an offensive to retake the ISIS-held city of Mosul has been going on for a month. Iraqi forces with help from allies including the U.S. have entered the city after pushing through its rural outskirts. As NPR's Alice Fordham reports, things for now have slowed down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In a makeshift army base a few miles from Mosul's frontlines, Iraqi soldiers are unloading defused mortar shells from a truck.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: They're adding them to a display of weapons captured from ISIS and posing for triumphant photos in front of them. They have reason to celebrate. Despite fierce fighting, Iraqi forces have pushed all the way into Mosul. But talking to the men recently back from the front, fighting inside the city is presenting challenges.

QUSAY AL-JUBOURI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "Yeah, yeah, it's because of the civilians," says one soldier named Qusay al-Jubouri. ISIS is using civilians as human shields. There may be a million people still living inside Mosul, and ISIS launches attacks from civilians' houses.

AL-JUBOURI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Jubouri says that means it's much more difficult to use airstrikes against the extremists or other heavy weapons. Inside the base's improvised HQ, his commanding officer, General Shaker al-Shwaily, says there's another problem - narrow city streets.

GENERAL SHAKER AL-SHWAILY: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He says, "we've entered, but our movement's slowed down because we have vehicles like tanks." In fact this is an armored division, so their tanks and Humvees get stuck in the small streets and are easy targets for ISIS.

Soldiers and civilians are dying, although the military don't give casualty figures. And another factor - before the operations began, military and civilian leaders said that people would rise up inside Mosul against ISIS and help the armed forces. I asked the general about that.

AL-SHWAILY: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "No, in our area, nothing like that happened," he says.

AL-SHWAILY: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He doesn't seem surprised. "These are poor people," he says. About 50,000 people have fled Mosul, and in a camp for the displaced a few miles away, I meet a man who fled that urban fighting recently and only just made it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He won't give his name because he's still afraid of ISIS. He tells me, no, people in Mosul can't fight against ISIS whether they want to or not.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through interpreter) It's hard for us to resist them. We don't have weapons, and we have our children with us.

FORDHAM: ISIS fighters know who everyone is and where they live. They would kill the family of any rebels, he says. He agrees the fight inside the city will be tough, but he says while ISIS is brutal and fighting hard, there aren't many of that fighters left alive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through interpreter) I think their numbers are small, but they try to deceive the security forces by hiding themselves between houses and moving around on motorcycles.

FORDHAM: They shoot from one building then race off and shoot from another to make out there's a lot of them. For the moment, progress remains slow. ISIS is still using car bombs and snipers. But commanders remain optimistic. One counter-terror commander tells me on a recent day, his men were only hit by five ISIS car bombs, a light day's battle in Mosul. Alice Fordham, NPR News, northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.