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Battle For Mosul Heats Up As Iraqi Forces Fight To Free City From ISIS

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq have lived under ISIS for two years. Now they are living under assault from troops that are trying to free the city from ISIS control. The assault on the city started more than a month ago and civilians are caught in the crossfire. As winter approaches, things are getting worse. Alex Milutinovic is the International Rescue Committee's Iraq country director. He joins us via Skype from the city of Erbil, about an hour outside of Mosul. Welcome to the program.

ALEX MILUTINOVIC: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: What is life like for people who are living in Mosul now?

MILUTINOVIC: Well, the life for people in Mosul is, you know, it's getting more and more complicated and difficult. People have been living under ISIS for two years. And they've endured all kind of horrible things. So, you know, now they're basically coming under direct conflict between the Iraqi army and ISIS. And as the conflict heats up and as the more neighborhoods are being taken, civilian lives are coming at risk.

SHAPIRO: How many people are we talking about? How many civilians are still in the city?

MILUTINOVIC: We're expecting between 1 and 1.2 million people are still within the city.

SHAPIRO: So people are caught in this direct conflict. Are they able to get food, water, electricity, the basic necessities to go about their daily lives?

MILUTINOVIC: As you know, city is divided into two parts. There is a western part of city, which is, you know, on the western side of the Tigris River, and the eastern side. Basically western side is still open to Syria so we are seeing some supplies coming again, while eastern side is currently under attack by the Iraqi army. And that's where we are seeing more and more destruction. Unfortunately, the water connection is broken so people are not getting water. They're actually using water from dirty wells. So we are very concerned about the waterborne diseases coming up. The food is available still, but since the conflict and the shooting and snipers are active all day, it's very complicated for civilians to get outside to buy more products. We have seen a lot of casualties actually from people who actually venture outside to buy most-needed food.

SHAPIRO: And I think many people think of Iraq as a hot desert country but Mosul is in the north. And as winter approaches temperatures are getting below freezing, aren't they?

MILUTINOVIC: Absolutely, for the past three nights the temperatures are below freezing. So it's a very dire situation. And people don't have kerosene, which is usually used for heating. And for the past two years, the residents of Mosul since ISIS took over were not able to buy any heating products so they have to go and endure this cold weather with only blankets and winter clothes.

SHAPIRO: People are caught in this sort of pincer between the Iraqi government and ISIS. Is the Iraqi government providing support and aid to civilians who are trapped in Mosul?

MILUTINOVIC: Absolutely, the Iraqi government is doing the best they can to actually provide first aid and assistance to the civilians in Mosul. So they are trying to distribute food. They are trying to provide assistance any possible way. But also they're trying to fight a war at the same time. So that is a very complicated situation when they have to actually fight the battle but also ensure civilian safety. What we are seeing in Mosul right now is the Iraqi army is not using heavy weapons. So they are doing the best they can to not destroy the civilian infrastructure and not put the lives of civilian at risk.

SHAPIRO: It's been more than six weeks since this assault began. What do you see as the next phase? Where do you expect things to go from here?

MILUTINOVIC: I'm not a military expert, but looking to the situation on the ground it's very obvious that the eastern side will come under government control. And then anything can happen with the western side. And we expect on the western side there are 400,000 people that might come under siege. And we have seen how devastating siege can be in the situation of Aleppo and other cities. So we have a significant concern for people that remain in the city after eastern side is taken.

SHAPIRO: Alex Milutinovic, International Rescue Committee's Iraq country director, thank you for joining us.

MILUTINOVIC: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.