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Along The Iraq-Syria Border, U.S. Troops Focus On Defeating ISIS


We go now to Iraq, where there are still roughly 5,000 U.S. troops even though ISIS has been largely driven out. NPR's Jane Arraf traveled with the U.S. military for an exclusive look at one of the more remote American bases near the Syrian border.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: To get to the firebase, you fly by helicopter over Mosul, the city retaken from ISIS a year ago after nine months of fighting along Sinjar Mountain, where minority Yazidis fled to escape genocide in 2014. And then just a little more than a mile from the Syrian border, there's a collection of tents and armored vehicles in the desert. For the last month, that's been home to about 150 American soldiers and Marines working with Iraqi forces to fire artillery at ISIS in Syria.

SERGEANT JASON POWELL: This is the M777 Alpha 1. It shoots the 155 round as we have here. They weigh about a hundred pounds each. And sometimes we get up to 12-round fire missions. So with your gear on and hauling these rounds, these guys are fricking animals.

ARRAF: That's Sergeant Jason Powell from Kentucky. The guys he's talking about are his crew, the men who load the guns.

POWELL: Shell 549, Alpha 1. Fuse seven-three-niner (ph).

ARRAF: This one was a demonstration. They didn't fire anything. Normally they're firing over the border into Syria at ISIS fighters. The main focus is denying them terrain, firing into areas to keep them from moving in.

POWELL: Deflection 3200, Quadrant 300.1.

ARRAF: It's all done to support Iraqi troops and aircraft operating in Syria. Lieutenant Ray Clapp says it's still all about defeating ISIS.

LIEUTENANT RAY CLAPP: So I think the fire support that this location provides to support forces in Syria is invaluable and then also the cooperation between U.S. forces here and Iraqi forces.

ARRAF: Iraqi commanders normally select the targets. The strikes are mostly in remote areas. The U.S. military says it takes care to avoid civilian casualties. Sergeant Powell says they never see their targets.

So do you ever actually see who you're aiming at then?

POWELL: No, Ma'am. They just come back and brief us on how good we did.

ARRAF: Fifteen years after the U.S. invaded Iraq with 130,000 troops, it's a lot different here for the American military. But the bond between soldiers is the same. Private Luis Villegas emigrated from Mexico and joined the Army. He's 20.

PRIVATE LUIS VILLEGAS: I always thought there was some honor. I believe that if I serve with these men right here right next to me, that I'm going to learn many things that are going to help me in the future. Just love. Love - that's a primary thing - to love and value friendship and the people that are around you.

MAJOR GENERAL WALTER PIATT: I appreciate what you guys do 'cause none of this was here. You built it all upon arrival.

ARRAF: Major General Walter Piatt tells the soldiers and Marines he's proud of them. As we walk along, he stops for selfies with Iraqi soldiers and officers who share the base.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

PIATT: (Foreign language spoken).



ARRAF: It's about a hundred degrees here. Sand as fine is baby powder settles over everything. There's scorpions and huge, biting spiders. I ask Private Clayton Mogensen how they plan to spend the Fourth of July.

PRIVATE CLAYTON MOGENSEN: Oh, well, see; we've got a few baseballs here, and we take the handle from a pickaxe and set bases up and just have a good time. So I think Fourth will be good spent playing ball.

ARRAF: General Piatt tells the men they probably won't be there much longer. After this, they'll likely move somewhere else along the border, fighting an enemy that's been driven out but not entirely defeated. Jane Arraf, NPR news, at the Um Jurius (ph) firebase in northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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