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The Dueling Narratives In The Fight For Mosul


We go to Iraq now, where a major battle for the city of Mosul is underway. It's the second biggest city in Iraq, and Iraqi forces are trying to take the city back from ISIS, which has held it for the last two years. To talk more about what's going on, we're joined now by NPR's Alice Fordham, who's in Erbil, Iraq. Hi, Alice.


MARTIN: And Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent, is here with me in Washington, D.C. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So thanks to you both for speaking with us. Alice, I'm going to start with you. You're in northern Iraq, not in Mosul, but you're not far away. Can you give us a sense of what's happening?

FORDHAM: Well, since Monday, there has been an array of Iraqi security forces and some Western advisers approaching Mosul from two main directions. They're still a ways out of the city of Mosul. They're fighting their way through rural areas, villages, mountains. In the south, it's mainly the Iraqi army. They are fighting their way through populated villages, which is messy. Sometimes there are people joining with the army to fight against ISIS. Sometimes there is house-to-house fighting against ISIS. Then closer to where I am right now in the north, it's been mainly the Kurdish forces, Iraqi forces called Peshmerga. They're moving through a largely depopulated area, but they say they have been surprised by the number of traps set for them by ISIS - car bombs, truck bombs, mines plus mortar attacks and snipers. In addition, in the last couple of days a chemical plant, part of a chemical plant, has been set alight, which is filling some of the air to the south of Mosul with clouds of toxic smoke.

MARTIN: Wow. So, Tom, what are you hearing from the Pentagon about the battle plan?

BOWMAN: They say it is on schedule, but they're not being specific about how long it's going to take before they can actually retake Mosul. What we've seen so far is a lot of delaying tactics from ISIS. It's - they're setting off huge numbers of car and truck bombs. They're lighting pits on fire with oil in them to obscure their movements so aircraft can't see them. But they are optimistic. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters traveling with him today in Turkey that listen, things seem to be going well, there's momentum, but this is very, very complex. And also, as they get closer to Mosul, that's when it's going to get really complex. It's an urban fight. You have hundreds of thousands of civilians, so you have to kind of sort them out, give humanitarian aid. This is going to be going on for a very long time.

MARTIN: You know, it is sometimes the case that the way things are conveyed in Washington are different from the way they seem on the ground, closer to the fighting. So, Tom, I'm going to ask you - how is this whole situation being conveyed to you? And then I'm going to ask Alice to see whether that squares with what she's seeing.

BOWMAN: Well, I've been covering the military for about 20 years now and through the various wars. And they're always more optimistic in Washington. And this is no different. But clearly, privately, they're very worried about all sorts of things. The Peshmerga and the Iraqis are complaining about not enough air strikes. They're worried about possibly chemical weapons being used by ISIS fighters, either chlorine or some sort of a mustard-type agent. That's why they've distributed 24,000 gas masks to Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

FORDHAM: I actually think, Tom, I'm going to take the liberty of interrupting you there. I think that the concern on the chemical weapon is a bit more immediate than that. Yes, there are reports that ISIS had bomb-making factories in Mosul for some time. They've held the city for more than two years. But what's happened is that al-Mishraq plant, it's called, part of that has been set alight by ISIS as a kind of giant chemical weapon that is spreading over a large area, including over where American, Western advisers are based, as well as Iraqi forces. So the situation is in some ways quite urgent in terms of the chemical concerns.

MARTIN: Why now? Why is this battle taking place now?

BOWMAN: Well, we've been told it was going to start really for the past year and a half, but there were always some sort of delays. The Iraqi forces needed a lot more training. They had to work out differences between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi government forces, the various grievances the Kurds have with the Iraqi government. And, I think, also the White House has been pushing this to get underway before the president leaves office. They want to have a lot of momentum, you know, taking down ISIS in its two major cities - Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa, the de facto headquarters next door in Syria - before the president leaves next January.

MARTIN: What's the vision for what happens next, after the fighting is over?

FORDHAM: Well, this is something that I am personally enormously interested in. When ISIS took over large parts of Iraq a bit more than two years ago, the line from the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS was that there had to be both a political and a military plan for getting rid of ISIS. What we're seeing now is quite an advanced and a complex military plan for kicking ISIS out of this city of Mosul. There's a million people still living there. It is, by some distance, their biggest and most prestigious holdout.

But there does seem to be not so much in terms of a stabilization plan, any kind of way of guaranteeing to the people that go back to Mosul that there won't be a lot of retribution and revenge killing, that there will be rule of law, that there will be good governance - all things that were lacking in Mosul prior to 2014, which is part of the reason, perhaps, that some of the people there did support ISIS when they first came in.

However, most of the people I'm talking to now - people who've left very recently, even occasionally people inside Mosul - say that Iraq has long been a violent place. And they have seen difficult times in Mosul, but they have never seen anything like life under ISIS. And they want them out at any cost.

MARTIN: And Tom, where does this fit into the larger fight against ISIS?

BOWMAN: Well, if ISIS is defeated in Mosul, that's a huge win for the coalition because ISIL in Mosul - Mosul is the second biggest town in Iraq. It's the biggest city they have in Iraq right now. And after that, you'll see the fight move into Syria, to the city of Raqqa, which is the de facto capital for the Islamic State. And that would be the the final battle, really, here. But one of the problems with Raqqa is you don't have enough ground forces there. You don't have enough Kurdish forces and Syrian-Arab forces, according to the Pentagon, to really press Raqqa. Right now, you're seeing a lot of American air strikes there. You have some American special operations forces assisting those ground forces. But they still have to get a lot more local forces on the ground in Syria to press Raqqa. That'll be the next big step after Mosul.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Alice Fordham. She's in Erbil, Iraq. NPR's Tom Bowman was here with me in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.