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Iraqi Forces Approach Outskirts Of Mosul In Battle With ISIS

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For more than two years, the Iraqi city of Mosul has been under the control of the Islamic State. It's the last major city in Iraq that's still in the grasp of the militant group. But now, after two weeks of fighting outside the city with U.S. assistance in the form of advisers and air strikes, the Iraqi counterterror forces have battled their way through to the outskirts of the city itself. More than a million people are thought to be living there still. NPR's Alice Fordham is in northern Iraq. And Alice, first, what more can you tell us about this latest advance?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, what the Iraqi security forces are doing now is just beginning to push into the eastern edge of the city proper. These are the counterterror forces that are leading this attack. And it's a culmination of a series of battles led by those counterterror forces but with other Iraqi security forces and American support. And what they've done is they have moved through deserted villages to the east of the city, where they faced resistance from ISIS. And they took a lot of casualties, but they also moved reasonably quickly. Commanders are now telling state media that they have taken the state TV station just on the eastern edge of Mosul, and now they're moving into neighborhoods.

In terms of the kind of fighting that we're seeing here, it's now likely to change. These forces are moving from basically depopulated areas with small villages and open spaces into a densely populated urban area, so their progress is now likely to slow down. ISIS has dug in. We've reached people inside Mosul, and they're terrified of what happens next.

CORNISH: And this is just one part of Mosul - right? - one side of the city. What about the rest of the area?

FORDHAM: Right. So there are forces also progressing from all different directions. The Iraqi security forces are all working together, but there's a whole array of them. There's the army. There's the federal police. There's tribal fighters. There's paramilitaries. And they're moving at different rates, partly because some of them are moving through populated areas, which is slower going, and partly for political reasons. Things are complicated by the ethnic mix here in Mosul and in northern Iraq, more generally.

CORNISH: But tell us more about that. What's going on with the demographics that's affecting all this?

FORDHAM: Well, it's a very diverse area, and it has deep ethnic and sectarian divisions. So part of the forces that we have seen moving on Mosul are Kurdish forces in the north, which are Iraqi. They're known as Peshmerga. And they have been a big part of the initial effort to move into the area around Mosul, but they made an agreement that they wouldn't move further forward than where they are now around the north and eastern edge of Mosul because there's concerns that they would try to expand the ethnic Kurdish sphere of influence.

And another thing that we're seeing is over to the west of the city there are Shiite Muslim paramilitary forces moving in. But they're moving into an area that's populated by another ethnic minority - they're ethnic Turkmen. And Turkey says that it feels a kind of connection with these ethnic Turkmen. They're very close to Turkey. And Turkey has threatened to attack these Shiite paramilitary forces. It's even massing some troops on the border if they move into this ethnic Turkmen area. So it's a complicated set of operations.

CORNISH: And amidst all this, you have a million people still living in Mosul, right? I mean, what's going on with civilians?

FORDHAM: Well, that is kind of the unanswered question, and it depends on how the fighting plays out in the city. One thing that ISIS has done previously is use people essentially as human shields. We're getting credible reports from inside the city that they have forcibly moved civilians from villages nearby to the city to use them as human shields. Another thing that might happen is that people might just get caught up in the fighting and be unable to escape. Or hundreds of thousands of people could flee and overwhelm aid agencies' capacity to assist them.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Alice Fordham speaking to us in northern Iraq. Alice, thanks so much.

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