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Ramadi, Iraq, Offensive Delays Efforts To Take Back Mosul


We heard from Scott that the fight against ISIS in Iraq is one of the big questions President Obama faced at the end of the G7 conference. It was June of last year when ISIS invaded Mosul. The feeble Iraqi security forces fled and the militants settled in as rulers of the city. And many are asking why a year on there hasn't been a counter offensive. NPR's Alice Fordham is in Iraq, and she reports there's no force willing and able to lead that charge.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: To get a handle on the situation in Mosul, I ride with General Hazhar Zegri, a Kurdish commander in northern Iraq, down to the front line where his men are faced off against ISIS.

GENERAL HAZHAR ZEGRI: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Those village are - the Daesh are there now.

FORDHAM: Daesh, the Arabic nickname for ISIS, and as we speed along the hot, dry plains in a bulletproof car, Zegri says the group fires rockets from those villages at his men's defenses.


FORDHAM: When we reach an outpost on the front line, a soldier brings out a rocket that fell recently. It has thick, twisted fins and looks homemade.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).


FORDHAM: They say the rockets are noisy but do nothing to push back this front line, which has been in place for nine months, dug in with ditches and sandbags. And that's the way things are around Mosul - entrenched. The Kurdish soldiers known as Peshmerga say they can defend their turf from ISIS, but Mosul itself is seeded with IEDs, surrounded by blast walls and ditches full of oil ready to be set alight and defended by perhaps 1,200 extremist fighters whose goal is to die in battle. It's going to be hard to take back.

Back at base, General Zegri invites us to lunch. Over okra stew and roast lamb he says part of the problem is the armed forces in Iraq aren't united. Army leaders in Baghdad don't coordinate with Kurdish forces in the north.

ZEGRI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: And because Mosul is populous it will be hard to take back without massive civilian casualties.

ZEGRI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Another problem is sectarian. A large part of the fighting against ISIS in Iraq these days is being done by Shiite militias allied with the government. ISIS is a Sunni group and most everyone in Mosul is Sunni and likely to be afraid of the militias, which have been accused of targeting Sunni civilians. General Zegri says a Shiite force would be a disaster. A few thousand Sunni fighters led by a former governor of Mosul have been receiving training, but no one thinks they're strong enough to take the city by themselves.

ZEGRI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: And General Zegri says there's another factor too - Anbar. That's the province west of Baghdad were ISIS took the city of Ramadi last month. I speak with a senior military leader from the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS about this. He won't give his name or be recorded, but he says Ramadi caught us by surprise, and it shouldn't have done. That battle to take back Ramadi is now consuming much coalition and Iraqi effort that's at least delayed plans for a Mosul offensive. U.S.-led airstrikes are ongoing against ISIS targets, but the group is apparently still well-funded and supplied. Some diplomats mention the end of the year for an offensive, though one wondered in private if Mosul would ever be retaken, if ISIS might not be moving toward being a state.


FORDHAM: I meet another Kurdish general, Mohammed Ali Muqdeed, who comes for dinner in the city of Erbil right after a week on the front line. He says military assessments of Mosul are actually missing the point.

GENERAL MOHAMMED ALI MUQDEED: (Through interpreter) We have to think about the political before the military. The military, it's easy.

FORDHAM: It's that sectarian problem again - the Sunnis of Mosul believe they've been persecuted by a Shiite-dominated government. That government has got to reach out to the Sunnis or many of them will side with ISIS.

MUQDEED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: General Muqdeed says when we fight we should be trying to achieve peace to solve the problem. But if Iraq fights ISIS in Mosul without a political agreement first, they will only make the problem bigger and bigger. Alice Fordham, NPR News, northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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