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Fight Begins To Wrest Control Of Western Mosul From ISIS


U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis is in Baghdad today talking with Iraqi leaders about the ongoing fight against ISIS. President Trump famously said the U.S. should have taken all of Iraq's oil after the invasion. During his trip to the Gulf, Secretary Mattis expressed a different view.


JAMES MATTIS: All of us in America generally paid for our gas and oil all along, and I'm sure that we will continue to do so in the future. We're not in Iraq to seize anybody's oil.

MARTIN: Mattis arrives as Iraqi security forces have launched an operation to retake the western half of the city of Mosul back from ISIS. NPR's Alice Fordham is in northern Iraq, where she's been reporting on Mosul, and she joins me now.

Good morning, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Secretary Mattis is there right as this big offensive is happening in Mosul. Can you describe exactly what Iraqi forces are trying to do?

FORDHAM: Sure. So it began actually early yesterday, announced by the prime minister with some fanfare in a televised speech. It includes an array of Iraq's security forces. It seems their elite interior ministry forces and also some of the army are leading the push right now. To get to the outskirts of western Mosul, they have to make it through some rural territory, so they're fighting in villages at the moment. The first big battle is likely to be for Mosul's airport, which is a strategic location. Generally, commanders think they'll begin to see fiercer resistance once things got to that stage.

MARTIN: So if this offensive is happening in western Mosul, what's happening in the east of the city?

FORDHAM: Well, yeah. So it's not actually really a new offensive. It's a continuation of an assault to take the city of Mosul back from ISIS, which began in October. And those operations began in the east of the city, where ISIS put up ferocious resistance, especially using car and truck bombs to deadly effect.

And there were some problems in the Iraqi approach to retaking Mosul. And according to people like an Iraqi special forces commander I spoke with at the time, General Maan al-Saadi, the operation took longer than it should have done because many branches weren't really working together effectively. He was complaining that his men were taking areas but then the army wasn't coming in as a holding force. But then, I understand, the army complained there was no communication by the special forces. They didn't know where they were meant to be.

So there were two months of heavy fighting and then something termed an operational pause, in which some of these problems were ironed out;. Some more men were deployed there, and then there was a final push that saw east Mosul decisively retaken. It's now in government control.

MARTIN: So does it seem that the planning and tactics have now been improved?

FORDHAM: Well, that's a question I've been asking myself. So I had the opportunity, last week, to speak with one of the American commanders helping the Iraqis here, Air Force Brigadier General Matthew Isler. And as I said, the battle for east Mosul was very bruising. A lot of Iraqi soldiers were killed. And I asked him, are the Iraqi security forces ready for the west? And he said yes, there have been losses, but that has been taken into account with the deployment happening now. This is what he said.

MATTHEW ISLER: The operation for west Mosul takes units that exist right now in their current stream and erased them in a decisive way. And they have decisive combat power to make it and achieve their objectives in West Mosul.

FORDHAM: And Isler also told me that the U.S. advisers that are working with the Iraqi forces are now more widely deployed, actually on the battlefield, so they're able to help more. He also says that American intelligence indicates there's infighting and desertion among ISIS troops. And he told me the coalition has worked, especially with the elite counterterror forces here in Iraq, to come up with a strategy against the car and truck bombs that ISIS has been able to use. So that means there's partly more airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition and partly a change of tactics, as he told me.

ISLER: It conducted a layered defense that included lookout and engagement areas. And so it would stop their offensive operations. They would go into deliberate defense, and that's their force protection. And that's how they mitigated their own casualties.

MARTIN: So as you mentioned, Alice, this is all happening with the coordination of U.S. troops. There are airstrikes happening, U.S. airstrikes. U.S. troops are on the ground serving as advisers. So the U.S. secretary of defense, James Mattis, is there on the ground in Baghdad. What is - what are Iraqis looking for from his visit? What do they want to hear from the U.S. government right now, especially as they're still rooting out ISIS in places like Mosul?

FORDHAM: Well, exactly. So Iraq sees itself, really, as a staunch ally of the United States in the war against ISIS. And particularly in the first weeks of the Trump presidency, many Iraqis have been perturbed by the things that have been coming out of Washington. Earlier, it was mentioned that President Trump once said that all the oil in Iraq should have been taken by the U.S. Equally, Iraqis were riled by the ban on immigration by Iraqis that included many people from this country...


FORDHAM: ...Who hoped to travel to the U.S. And so I think that they're probably looking for reassurance, both of political alignment with the United States and that there will continue to be support for their battle against ISIS on the ground.

MARTIN: NPR's Alice Fordham reporting from northern Iraq.

Thanks so much, Alice.

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

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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