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Devastated Neighborhoods Left Behind As ISIS Is Forced From Mosul


And we're going to turn now to our colleague who is in Iraq and has been getting a close-up look at the city of Mosul, where there are fierce battles going on to drive out ISIS. Iraqi forces took the eastern side of the city back from ISIS in January.

The fighting has moved to the western part of Mosul now. And this area is older, with winding streets and densely packed neighborhoods still filled with people. U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces have asked civilians to stay in their homes until they can clear their neighborhoods of fighters. But in some cases, that is becoming extremely dangerous. Our colleague, NPR's Jane Arraf, visited west Mosul yesterday. She joins us from Northern Iraq.

Good morning, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So let me start by asking you how you actually got into this area, the western part of the city where ISIS is still in control?

ARRAF: Well, first you have to go through a series of checkpoints. First, there are the Kurdish checkpoints of course because this is the Kurdish-controlled North. But then you get through to a series of other checkpoints that are staffed and manned by groups that didn't even exist before ISIS came through. They're former militias and also Iraqi security forces. And then you get to the river.

So the river is what separates east Mosul from west Mosul. And U.S.-led airstrikes destroyed most of those bridges to prevent ISIS from coming across. So you have to actually cross a pontoon bridge. But as you get to the river, you see all the evidence of months of fighting, which is destroyed villages and even villages that aren't destroyed - major towns, major Christian towns and others, almost completely deserted.

So when you drive through that pontoon bridge and you get into west Mosul, there's a lot of destruction. You can see the evidence of heavy fighting there. And the closer you get to Mosul as well, you can also hear the evidence of ISIS. You can tune in on your car radio, ISIS Radio, where they give, allegedly, the news of the so-called victories that they've had.

GREENE: Wow, you can start listening to the propaganda radio. Oh, my God.

ARRAF: And there's almost the constant sound of helicopters, airstrikes and mortars. So the front is still a couple of miles away but still very much in evidence.

GREENE: So you're talking about some areas you've seen that are deserted - there's destruction. But we've been hearing about how this is urban warfare taking place in an area where civilians are just trapped in very narrow spaces, I mean, with very high casualties. Well, you've seen any evidence of that?

ARRAF: Absolutely. The big problem for civilians is they were told to stay in the city. So the other main battle was in Fallujah, in western Al Anbar. And there, security forces created a corridor that allowed civilians to leave. But they say in retrospect, it also allowed ISIS to leave.

So now, there are still estimated to be at least 400,000 civilians in west Mosul. And they're basically trapped between ISIS, which is living among them, and the advancing Iraqi security forces. And now as the Iraqi security forces go further, they're trying to open up some corridors to allow civilians to escape after they clear those areas.

We spoke with one of those officers from the Emergency Response Division, Colonel Abdulamir Muhammadawi. And he talked a little bit about some of the problems that they're facing.

ABDULAMIR AL-MUHAMMADAWI: (Through interpreter) Whenever the citizens move toward us, they're targeted by mortars or by snipers. And then the problem is because they're afraid, they go in all different directions, not in the corridors we've opened. ISIS has placed explosives in those areas, and they get hit by those.

ARRAF: So there's been a very heavy civilian toll, hundreds of civilians killed in many horrible ways but also quite a heavy toll among Iraqi and certainly Kurdish security forces as well, David.

GREENE: Jane, help us clear up something as best you can. Earlier this month, a real low point in the battle there - there was a U.S. airstrike. Not exactly clear how it happened but as many as 200 civilians died in nearby buildings. Any better understanding of what took place?

ARRAF: So U.S. investigators are still on the ground. They're trying to determine whether it was those U.S. airstrikes, which the U.S. acknowledges doing at the time, or whether it was a secondary explosion. But it was made worse because the rescue operations were so limited.

And it's not just the tragedy of the deaths of people trapped in the rubble and dying there days later. But the big-picture problem here is it actually threatens to reverse the confidence that Iraqis have come to have in the Iraqi security forces. And that's one of the main things that's seen as a requirement for keeping Iraq Iraq - keeping the country together, not just driving out ISIS but actually holding the country together.

GREENE: Speaking there to our colleague, NPR's Jane Arraf, in northern Iraq. She has been visiting the western part of the city of Mosul where Iraqi forces are trying to drive out ISIS.

Jane, thank you.

ARRAF: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.