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Iraqi Forces Begin Effort To Drive ISIS From Mosul

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the pre-dawn hours of the morning, Baghdad time, Iraq's prime minister announced the beginning of a long-awaited military operation to retake the city of Mosul. When ISIS fighters seized control of Mosul more than two years ago, many inhabitants fled the city and surrounding villages. But many remained and fell under the harsh rule of the Islamic State. It was in Mosul that the leader of the Islamic State officially declared a caliphate. The offensive to retake the city is expected to last weeks, even months, and will involve thousands of Iraqi troops backed by American advisers and air support. For more, we reached Alice Fordham in Iraq. Good morning.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And let's start with the basics of what exactly is happening.

FORDHAM: OK. Well, Iraqi security forces are approaching Mosul from the south and from the northeast. It's important to note, they're not all that close to the city itself right now. They're 20 or 30 miles away in some places. And what they're going to have to do is fight their way through territory, which is mostly villages - some abandoned, some not abandoned - all currently held by ISIS.

Now, the various forces are reporting progress. But it doesn't seem very rapid. There's a lot of different forces involved in this operation. In the place close to where I am, it's Iraqi-Kurdish forces. And soldiers who are on the front line there say they have been facing resistance from ISIS in these little villages. It's a similar story on the southern front, which is mainly the Iraqi army. There's been an advance of a few miles along the road to Mosul. But there is fighting reported there as well.

MONTAGNE: And the reason Mosul has been so much talked about is it is a key city to wrest away from ISIS, there in Iraq.

FORDHAM: Absolutely, yes. I was here a bit more than two years ago when it fell to ISIS abruptly in really kind of a lightning assault. At the time, there was about 2 million people living in the city. There might be a million people still there. It's their largest piece of territory, their most significant city. And it's their last urban holdout in Iraq. So it's tremendously important, both strategically and symbolically, to take back Mosul from ISIS.

Also, just looking forward a little bit, if the taking of Mosul goes well - which is to say that the security forces are able to do the operation effectively in a way that guarantees the safety of the people inside Mosul, and maybe even people can return to their homes, looking well forward - that is significant for Iraq as well as for the fight against ISIS because it will do a lot to restore relations between people in Iraq and their security forces in government, which, especially in Mosul, have not been good for a long time.

MONTAGNE: Although ISIS forces, it's been reported these last few days, have been really preparing for this long-awaited offensive on Mosul. So when security forces - Iraqi security forces - do get there, what do they expect?

FORDHAM: Well, security officials are telling us that there are still thousands of ISIS fighters inside the city. The estimates that we have been given vary from 3,000 to 8,000. Residents of the city who are still there describe concrete defenses that have been erected - trenches and tunnels. Urban fighting is difficult. And although there have been reports of some ISIS leaders fleeing - people who left the city very recently told us that they believe that a lot of the ISIS leadership has run away into Syria - in other cities, we have seen them hang on with quite small numbers.

They are famously prepared to fight to the death. We see suicide attackers, snipers. And they've had lots and lots of time to lay improvised explosive devices, booby traps. And what people here are terrified of is what's going to happen to the civilians inside the city, hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, maybe even more. They have been urged to stay in their houses in leaflets that have been dropped from the sky by the Iraqi security forces. But we hear from inside that a lot of people are secretly making plans to run away. And if they do that, there might be no safe route out. And aid agencies could be overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of displaced people that they don't really have the capacity to help.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Alice Fordham, speaking to us from Iraq. Thanks very much.

FORDHAM: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.