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Iraqi Troops, With U.S. Support, In The Outskirts Of Mosul

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For the first time in two years, Iraqi forces are in the city of Mosul. A mix of special forces, regular army and police with U.S. support have now battled their way into the eastern neighborhoods of Mosul, aiming to take back the city from the Islamic State. Aid agencies and the U.N. say there may be a million or more people inside Mosul. NPR's Alice Fordham joins us from northern Iraq now. Good morning.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, you - tell us what you know about the fighting so far today.

FORDHAM: Well, commanders on the front tell us that they are still battling ISIS remnants in the little villages just on the edge of the city. But they have pushed past those villages. And they're now in a neighborhood of the east of the city. They took a branch of the state TV yesterday, which was also just on that eastern edge.

The fighting just now, they say, is slightly slowed by a dust storm, which is engulfing Mosul and much of northern Iraq, as well as by these continuing ISIS attacks, which - they're happening on the front line. But they're also happening behind the front line. But there's certainly a jubilant mood here. Commanders, officials, people are broadcasting speeches on national television. It's an important moment.

MONTAGNE: And Alice, what about those million-plus residents and other civilians inside the city? What do we know about them, including where their sympathies may lay, although I suspect not with ISIS for the most part?

FORDHAM: Well, a lot of people here would like to say that. Military commanders are keen to highlight that there are acts of resistance against ISIS inside the city. And they say, you know, we're in touch with groups who say that they'll join the fight against ISIS once the armed forces come into Mosul. But if such groups exist, it's unlikely that they are very strong. It's unlikely that they're heavily armed. They may be - you know, some people bury a few weapons or hide them from ISIS. But they're not going to be a very effective force immediately. And when we speak to people inside Mosul, they say there is still support for ISIS.

The people inside Mosul have long been deeply suspicious of the security forces in Iraq. They are mainly Sunni Muslims, who, in 2014, when ISIS took Mosul, they often complained that they were targeted and marginalized by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. And because Mosul has been held by ISIS, it's been very difficult to get information about what's happening inside there. So it's a bit of a black hole. No one's really sure exactly how people are going to respond when the forces move in.

MONTAGNE: Right. So, is it actually also a complex - a lot - number of layers here. So, what are you - what's expected in the next few weeks?

FORDHAM: Well, this is the big question. We're actually two weeks into this campaign now, a little bit more. This is just one front of Mosul, the eastern front. And actually, people who were fighting on this eastern front did tell me at the beginning that they thought they would be in Mosul in two weeks' time. But then, for what happens inside the city, there are really well-informed people here who think about nothing but the battle inside Mosul. And they all say different things.

We know that there are thousands of ISIS fighters there. We know from eyewitnesses that they have built fortifications and defenses. And we know that the progress that has been made so far in this offensive has come at a huge cost. There has been significant casualties in the security forces from dozens of ISIS truck bombs, other complex bombs that ISIS has been able to lay. The villages that I have been through that have been retaken from ISIS were very damaged. So the indications are that this urban fighting will be very tough. But there are people who point out that there are some places that ISIS has basically abandoned, some who speculate they might move from the eastern side of this city, over the rivers to the western side. It might be easier to defend only one side of the city. And although some people speculate hundreds of thousands of people might be displaced or caught in the fighting, that hasn't happened so far. Obviously, it would be a huge relief for civilians if those scenarios didn't materialize.

MONTAGNE: A lot ahead here for everyone. Alice, thanks very much.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Alice Fordham, reporting from northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.