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As ISIS Strategy Evolves, Mosul Battle Gets Tougher On Iraqi Forces


Iraq's battle to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS is entering its third month. U.S.-backed forces are still just edging into the city after moving through dozens of villages on the outskirts. Hundreds of thousands of residents are still trapped inside. As NPR's Jane Arraf reports, Iraqi and U.S. commanders believe the fight is about to get even tougher.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Iraqi Special Forces General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi takes a homemade parachute out of a plastic bag. He says ISIS has started using them to drop explosives.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

ABDUL WAHAB AL-SAADI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: He's in a house he comes back to in a deserted village behind the front lines. His hand is bandaged. A few hours ago, he helped dig a family out of concrete rubble in east Mosul after a car bomb exploded. He shows me an ISIS mortar shell expertly made and branded with a black-and-white ISIS logo. General Saadi's counterterrorism forces trained by the U.S. have been leading the fight against ISIS for two years across Iraq.

AL-SAADI: (Speaking Arabic) Baji, Tikrit, Fallujah, Guyara.

ARRAF: But as they close in on the heart of Mosul, there's one thing he worries about most.

AL-SAADI: (Through interpreter) Just the civilians. It's a problem. Their position near the front line makes us a little worried and delays us.

ARRAF: There are more than 700,000 civilians trapped in Mosul. ISIS prevents them from leaving. And even if they could leave, Iraqi forces have cut off the exits to stop ISIS fighters from escaping. And ISIS has turned to new tactics suited to urban warfare. Saadi says the group is using small commercially available drones to track him and other commanders so they can target them with snipers and suicide bombs. ISIS uses bigger drones to carry explosives. Saadi he shows me a lens from an Iraqi photographer smashed by a sniper's bullet that narrowly missed him and the photographer.

AL-SAADI: I am lucky man.


ARRAF: He says he's lucky. He won't talk about the number of Iraqi forces killed, but says ISIS in Mosul has detonated 250 car bombs against his men alone. But he says Iraqi forces have killed far more ISIS fighters than they've lost.

AL-SAADI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "War demands sacrifices," he says.

A few miles down the road at a military checkpoint, we get a glimpse of how stretched the forces are.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: A soldier is looking for private cars to transport a wounded fighter. There's no ambulance. In the nearby city of Erbil, the deputy U.S. commander in Iraq explains why taking back Mosul is such a tough fight. Brigadier General Scott Efflandt says picture a major American city.

SCOTT EFFLANDT: Picture having to eradicate all crime and any enemy force in there. And it requires street by street, house by house, room by room operation. And there's no quick way to do it. You have to walk. You have to climb stairs. And then you have to open doors and then repeat process again and again and again. And then while you're doing that, you need to leave someone behind you to guard to make sure the enemy doesn't come around you and occupy the area you just went through.

ARRAF: The U.S. military spent eight years here, but troops now are far from the front lines. As U.S. commanders say, this time it's Iraqis doing the fighting and dying. Jane Arraf, NPR News in northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.