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World

Battle To Wrest ISIS From Iraqi City Of Mosul Enters More Intense Phase

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The battle to force ISIS out of the Iraqi city of Mosul appears to be heading into its final phase. It's been seven months since Iraqi government and Kurdish troops, backed by U.S. airstrikes and advisers on the ground, started the offensive. Iraqi officials say they're closing in on the last few neighborhoods held by ISIS. But there are thousands of civilians still in the city. We're joined by NPR's Jane Arraf. She is in Cairo, and she has been covering all of this.

Hi, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Can you just walk us through what's been happening over the last couple of days in and around Mosul?

ARRAF: Sure. In the last 24 hours, Iraqi forces say they dropped leaflets over those last neighborhoods in Mosul that ISIS is still controlling. And those leaflets are telling civilians to make their way to what they call safe corridors out of the city. Now, Iraqi forces are reported to have been using bulldozers to bring down concrete barriers to open those exit routes. But it's not going to be that easy, Rachel. In the past, to right this battle, ISIS has actually been killing civilians who are trying to leave. So there's still a lot of danger there to the civilians in this last phase of the fight.

MARTIN: So what does this mean? I mean, is it optimistic to say this is the last phase of the fight? Is it really potentially over?

ARRAF: Well, that's a great question. And, you know, there's a lot of question as well as to whether the fight will ever be over in the sense of - they will reclaim Mosul. That seems certain. But ISIS will continue to be a danger. But what this essentially means is that the territory that ISIS controls has shrunk. They're now believed to control maybe only 10 percent of Mosul. But the fighting now is getting more and more difficult. These are winding, narrow streets. They're packed with civilians who haven't been able to leave. And it's really difficult to use the U.S. airstrikes and the mortars and all of the other weaponry that's made this battle progress at this point.

MARTIN: When you talk about civilians, it's hard not to think about that bombing that happened in March, a U.S. airstrike that ended up killing as many as 200 people who were trapped in this building in Mosul. Is that on people's minds there as this new phase of the fight starts? I mean, have you been able to talk to military commanders about whether or not they are thinking about how to mitigate civilian casualties?

ARRAF: It absolutely is. Now, imagine that you're a civilian in Mosul and you're trapped in between the Iraqi government telling you to leave your house, go to those corridors and the memory of what has happened when people leave their houses and the memory of what happens when they stay. There's no safe option for them. After that airstrike in March, Iraqi commanders told me that they were reducing their reliance on airstrikes, and it's been apparent in this fight. Iraq and the U.S. said they didn't know there were so many civilians packed into that building. And that's the essential problem, Rachel. The U.S. has very little visibility on the ground these days. They're fighting a very difficult war, and they're relying on intelligence from their Iraqi partners.

MARTIN: NPR's Jane Arraf reporting on the fight against ISIS in Mosul. Thanks so much, Jane.

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