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U.S.-Led Coalition Continues Fight To Retake Mosul From ISIS

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now we're going to talk about what the U.S.-led coalition's fight against ISIS looks like on the ground right now. The Islamic State's single largest stronghold was the Iraqi city of Mosul. That's where the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of what he called a caliphate in 2014.

Iraqi forces have been trying to retake the city for more than five months, and NPR's Alice Fordham is with us now to talk about this. Hi, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Hi there, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So tell us what you know about the situation in Mosul right now. How is the fight against ISIS going?

FORDHAM: Well, it's absolutely progressing. Forces have been moving faster into the west side of the city than they did when they retook the east side of the city. They seem better coordinated. They have American and other coalition advisers embedded more deeply with those forces than they did.

They are moving closer to some landmarks like that iconic mosque where Baghdadi gave his famous speech. But the fight is getting more difficult as it moves deeper into the city. There are more densely populated areas with narrower streets.

MCEVERS: So you talk about densely populated areas. A lot of people live in Mosul, right? I mean how are they doing?

FORDHAM: Well, yeah, there's hundreds of thousands of people still living in the west side of the - of Mosul where the battle is intensifying at the moment. And again, the suffering of civilians is something that has escalated as the offensive has progressed. The last time I was there, I was seeing people coming out of the city. There are now 330,000 people displaced by the Mosul operation, and that rate of displacement has increased in recent weeks.

Amnesty International is reporting today people are coming out of the city with more injuries, more acute health problems. And even for people, Kelly, living in homes in areas that are retaken from ISIS, there's problems like lack of water. And another thing that impacts on them is that it's not completely clear who's holding the city. In some places, there are tribal fighters. In others, there are local police. But the interior ministry in Iraq itself has admitted there's a shortage of trained holding forces to keep order there.

MCEVERS: So, yeah, let's say Iraqi forces and their partners defeat ISIS in Mosul. I mean what would it take to keep the people there safe and make sure ISIS doesn't come back?

FORDHAM: Right, and this is a really important question because we have seen that ISIS has retaken places they've been kicked out of before like the city...

MCEVERS: Right.

FORDHAM: ...Of Palmyra in Syria. And it's also a question that seemed to be addressed today when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was talking to the coalition against ISIS. He seemed to be expressing, you know, almost a dilemma where the U.S. and its allies don't want to be too deeply involved in government or politics or infrastructural issues. They want to beat ISIS and just that. But equally they do want to make sure that ISIS don't come back.

So if we look at Mosul, one thing that the coalition is doing at this point is training holding forces, which is to say the different kinds of cops to administer and hold Mosul. But they can't even do that without getting involved in political sensibilities. In Mosul, there's historically been a lot of problems with sectarianism among some parts of the police, infiltrated by al-Qaida in other parts of the police. So when the coalition trains police, it has to try to eliminate that, and coalition officials are telling me it's tricky; it's slow-going. The plan for the holding of Mosul - like, what you might call, you know, the day after ISIS - is not all it might be.

MCEVERS: Yeah, and then of course ISIS isn't only in Iraq. It also holds territory in Syria. What is the status of the U.S.-led coalition effort there?

FORDHAM: Yeah, it seems they're increasingly active. You know, the U.S. supports several anti-ISIS factions in Syria. It seems they're likely to try to work with one or other of them to take the city of Raqqa back from ISIS in coming weeks or months. Activists from Raqqa still in touch with people there report an increase in airstrikes in the area in the last few days. They alleged today that a school was hit with displaced people sheltering in it. The coalition says they're looking into that.

And then earlier today, the coalition moved some of its local allies by helicopter and probably some American military advisers supporting them toward a dam they're hoping to take back from ISIS. So things seem to be ramping up there.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Alice Fordham from her base in Beirut. Thank you so much.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me, Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND TRIBE SECTOR 9 SONG, "TOKYO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.