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World

After Slow Going Against ISIS, Battle Picks Up In The Iraqi City Of Mosul

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's get a progress report now in the battle against ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul because that battle appears to be picking up speed. Iraqi security forces, with international help, began their offensive on the eastern part of that city last October. And progress had been slow. That seems to be changing. Let's hear more about that from NPR's Alice Fordham, who has reported in Iraq. She is following all of this from her base in Beirut. Alice, good morning.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what is the latest from the city of Mosul?

FORDHAM: Well, I think it's helpful to look back over the last month or so. In mid-December, the Iraqi security forces were really looking bogged down in very difficult urban warfare. They were in heavily populated areas where it's hard to advance without harming civilians. ISIS was hiding among the people there.

Then there was what was termed an operational pause around Christmas, after heavy casualties. And then the battles resumed at the end of December. And since then, they have gotten much faster. Iraqi security forces have moved into the university, into a key hospital complex, and they now say they hope to have the east side of the city under control by the end of the month.

GREENE: Which sounds like potentially real progress. I mean, what's changed to bring this about?

FORDHAM: Well, everyone is very keen to say that ISIS are weakened. We are seeing fewer truck bombs, which are a really devastating battlefield weapon. And their supply routes have been disrupted by the destruction of almost all the bridges and the routes across the Tigris River, which divides the east of the city from the west. But also, in the course of that operational pause, some changes seem to have been made in tactics. Coordination has improved. Some soldiers have been redeployed up there. And the coalition led by the United States, which is supporting this operation, has ramped up its airstrikes. And it has redeployed some advisers there.

GREENE: You and I have talked a lot about the fate of the civilians in the city of Mosul and just the awful conditions that a lot of people were in. What has happened to them?

FORDHAM: Well, to get an update on that, I spoke to the United Nations humanitarian coordinator there. Lise Grande is in Baghdad, and she was able to explain a bit about the situation.

LISE GRANDE: In humanitarian terms, what's now happened is there were about 400,000 civilians who were in their homes in newly liberated areas. We are desperately trying to reach them with urgent front-line assistance.

FORDHAM: And NPR was able to reach people in some of those areas of eastern Mosul, and they are, indeed, telling harrowing stories of lack of food, of water, of wells running dry. Ms. Grande also tells me that as this fight has intensified in the last week or 10 days or so, more people have been caught in the crossfire.

GRANDE: We are absolutely seeing an increase in the number of casualties requiring trauma care, either because they've been shot or because they've stepped on a booby trap. You know, the biggest gap in our operation, Alice, has been front-line trauma care. This is the way that you try and keep people that have stepped on booby traps and have suffered a gunshot wound alive.

GREENE: So it sounds like, I mean, as the battle against ISIS intensifies, that means civilians can be more in danger, which is one of the tough parts of this. I mean, we're talking about the eastern part of the city. Alice, what about the rest of Mosul? I mean, will the battle now shift west to other parts of the city?

FORDHAM: Well, eventually it will. And it does seem like that will present its own challenges. I asked Ms. Grande of the U.N. in Iraq about that as well, and this is what she had to say.

GRANDE: This is, I think, going to be a battle of different magnitude and scope than what we saw in the east. There are about 750,000 civilians that are still trapped in the west.

FORDHAM: And, David, military commanders have told us that they believe there is more support for ISIS in the west of the city. It's actually also more difficult terrain. It's the old city. There's narrow, small, winding streets there. And because it is close to the border with Syria, where there are still significant areas of ISIS control, there are easier resupply routes.

Another challenge is that for the Iraqi security forces and their international advisers, they will have to redeploy their troops before an assault can start there. Currently, most of them are in the east of the city. They're going to have to re-headquarter probably somewhere south of the city. And in terms of the humanitarians, I imagine that this is possible, that the area could come under siege or that an evacuation could be attempted there.

GREENE: Alice, it just sounds like - I mean, progress does not necessarily mean that Iraqi security forces are anywhere close to retaking this entire city.

FORDHAM: Oh, it's a huge and very difficult fight, yes.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Alice Fordham joining us from Beirut to talk about the fight against ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. Alice, thanks.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.