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Conditions Worsen For Civilians As Iraqi Forces Struggle To Retake Mosul


Now we're going to check in on what's become a long, drawn-out battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul. ISIS had controlled the large city for more than two years. Then about two months ago, Iraqi forces - with the help of U.S. airpower and advisers on the ground - started to try to retake the city. That effort is going slowly and many civilians are facing increased danger and deprivation. We're joined now by NPR's Jane Arraf, who just returned from a reporting trip to northern Iraq. And, Jane, the battle is now going into its third month. This is a big city, but why is it taking so long?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, Robert, to put it into a bit of historical perspective, according to some commanders I've spoken with, you'd actually have to go back to World War II to find urban fighting of this ferocity and this scale. So we're talking about a territory that's bigger than Washington, D.C. And then it's riddled with suicide bombers and snipers and explosive experts.

And it's a really old city. There are winding alleys and narrow streets. When I was covering U.S. soldiers on patrol in Mosul in 2003, they had a tough time navigating those streets. But really the main reason it's going so slowly are the civilians. There are still at least 700,000 of them in there.

SIEGEL: We're hearing about conditions for those civilians are worsening. How would you describe what's happening?

ARRAF: Really dreadful and very, very worrying because it's winter now. It's freezing cold and basics are the biggest problem. So with the water, some of the water pipelines have been damaged in the fighting. They're digging wells or they're walking for miles with jerry cans to get water from places that still have it. And some are drinking water out of the river.

There's a real lack of medical care. The U.S.-led coalition bombed the hospital there, saying it was an ISIS hideout. And the medical care there hasn't been great to begin with. Food is increasingly scarce, although it's in the markets. We're told that hardly anyone can afford it. It's really quite a grim situation.

SIEGEL: Why don't people leave, or can they leave Mosul at this stage?

ARRAF: They really can't. So at the beginning, the U.S. and Iraqi strategy was - they thought that people would actually rise up and they'd be able to leave on their own in some places. That hasn't happened. So now the situation is that ISIS isn't letting them leave. As the fighting moves over to the west side of the river, ISIS is actually herding people deeper into the city, essentially to use as human shields. Even if they could get beyond that barrier, there's really no place they can go because Iraqi forces with U.S. backing have the city surrounded. It's been a conscious strategy. They've surrounded the city. They've blown out all of the bridges but one.

So while there might be a trickle of people who manage to get through that, there's really no corridor that's left for people to go through. And that's because the Iraqis and the Americans have made the decision that if you leave a corridor for civilians to get through, that means that ISIS fighters can also retreat. And they fear they will be fighting this war against ISIS forever if that happens.

SIEGEL: Sounds terrible. What's likely to happen next?

ARRAF: Well, now the fighting is concentrated on a side of the river that's newer and has wider streets. There at least is the ability for U.S. airstrikes in some places. And as we know, they try very hard to avoid civilian casualties. But as they get further into that city and further into the more densely populated areas and cross that river, it's going to be very hard to use that airpower.

What we're looking at is neighborhood-by-neighborhood, house-to-house fighting, again, in a city that's full of explosives and full of civilians. It's expected to be a much tougher fight going in as we get further along and it's expected to take weeks, if not months more.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in Cairo, who until yesterday was in northern Iraq reporting on the battle for Mosul. Thanks.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.