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With Destruction Of City And Citizens, Is Mosul Win Really A Victory?


We'd like to start the program today looking at the fight against ISIS, the radical Islamist group that's become known worldwide both for its slick propaganda and gruesome atrocities, both tools in its quest to create its version of an Islamic state. In a few minutes, we'll hear from one of the journalists who's risked his life to tell the world what life has been like since ISIS took over the Syrian city of Raqqa. And I need to tell you that some of the descriptions you will hear may be disturbing. But we start in another city that's just been taken back from ISIS.

This is Mosul in Iraq, where ISIS was forced out by Iraqi troops with support from the U.S. The Iraqi government held a victory parade this weekend, but the destruction has been so vast and so many lives have been lost that some Iraqis are wondering whether it's really a victory or a tragedy. NPR's Jane Arraf, who's been reporting from Iraq for two decades, was back in Mosul this week. We reached her in Erbil, Iraq, which is about 50 miles from Mosul. Jane, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So walk us through this, if you would. Now, ISIS militants were forced out of the city by Iraqi forces, which were backed by the U.S. Now, ISIS had declared Mosul one of their capitals three years ago, so it would seem that getting them out would be a victory. And yet, there is - I'm not quite sure how to describe it - what would you say, ambivalence?

ARRAF: Oh, gosh, if only it were just ambivalence. It's sorrow. It's grief. It's what do we do now? It's all of those things because really what we're talking about is the destruction - and that is not an over-exaggeration - of a large part of the city and the social fabric that went with it. So it is a victory in the sense that compared to three years ago, when the entire divisions of the Iraqi army, who were trained by the U.S., collapsed and ran away when ISIS came in, this is something not to be underplayed.

They have taken back the city at an enormous cost. There are several thousand military casualties by most estimates and a lot more civilian casualties. But it has left a broken city. And as you drive through West Mosul, street after street where houses are reduced to rubble, where cars have been blown up. There are still bodies under the rubble. I went one woman named Minel (ph), who had come back to try to find the body of her son. He had been buried in a garden by a neighbor after being killed when a house collapsed in the air strike.

MINEL: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: And she's saying, "Mosul is gone" and then "Iraq is gone." And then she starts sobbing because it's not just her son and the neighbors who were buried in the gardens, she's mourning and sobbing for the city that she knew.

MARTIN: Who is seen as responsible for this? I mean, as we've mentioned, the U.S. had a role in this, providing air cover, helping to plan military operations and assisting troops on the ground. But we now understand that hundreds of civilians have been killed in U.S. air strikes that targeted ISIS fighters. So who is seen as responsible for what's happened there?

ARRAF: Well, it depends who you talk to. Iraqi security forces are grateful for the U.S. support, and some of them - special forces - coordinate directly with American forces. They've been fighting now for the past three years, but this is a very different battle and a very different Iraq. So in 2003, when Saddam was toppled, the U.S. Army came in and it basically ran Mosul. But after three years and all the time that's passed since 2003, a lot of the fighting these days is done by former militias backed by Iran. And a lot of Iraqis blame the U.S. for letting it get to this. But I wanted us to listen to a bit from a woman named Ampheras (ph), who I met when she was trying to identify the bodies of her relatives.

AMPHERAS: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: So they're about to unzip the body bag, and she's about to see her daughter and her 1-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter. And I'm sorry, this is all so grim, but this is everyday life there. And she's telling me, "is this what America wanted? Is this what you call a liberation, for God's sake?"

MARTIN: How does this get fixed?

ARRAF: Well, everyone's trying to figure that out. And it's really hard because the Iraq that we knew has been broken into pieces. There are hundreds of thousands of people from Mosul who are still displaced. Their homes are destroyed. ISIS isn't completely gone. But the big problem, Michel, is that people don't have faith in their own security forces for the most part. People are still really scared.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Jane Arraf, who's in Erbil, Iraq. Jane, thank you so much.

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

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