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U.S. Outlines Timetable To Force ISIS Out Of Mosul

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sometime this spring, the U.S., Iraq and their allies plan to retake the city of Mosul if they can. It's the biggest city yet captured by the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The United States laid out a timetable to strike back. So let's talk about this with NPR's Ari Shapiro, who is in northern Iraq, about fifty miles outside Mosul. He's on the line. Hi, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we're also talking with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who once again is in our studios. Tom, good morning to you.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what is the military saying, Tom Bowman?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, a U.S. military officer briefed reporters yesterday and said the expected timeframe for the Mosul operation is sometime in April or May with about 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqi troops. The U.S. officer said the U.S. and Iraq want to do this before the summer and the holy month of Ramadan. Now, Mosul is the second biggest city in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

BOWMAN: And this operation would be the largest against the Islamic State. So far, we've seen mostly airstrikes from the U.S. and coalition partners and some minor military operations by Iraqi and Kurdish forces. So this would be pretty big.

INSKEEP: Just a sort of average-guy question, it occurs to me, is it a good idea to announce, months in advance, your schedule for an offensive operation?

BOWMAN: You know, it's funny. Some of the reporters were talking about that yesterday. And this officer, we asked him about it. And he kind of dodged the question. But this might be psychological operations - that you're trying to, you know, unsettle your enemy, also give civilians time to leave the area. So there might be a little kind of information operation going on here as well.

INSKEEP: A little bit of gamesmanship going on.

BOWMAN: Right.

INSKEEP: All right, let's go to Ari Shapiro now. What have you been seeing, Ari, in northern Iraq?

SHAPIRO: Well, I went to the front line this week overlooking Mosul, a place called Bashiqa Mountain. And you see the Kurdish flags flying on the top of the mountain. And you see the ISIS flags, those black flags, flying in the valley below. And the Kurdish fighters tell me they want to go now. They are ready to go right away. But they know they cannot take this majority Sunni town of Mosul on their own. The Kurds are not entirely welcome there. So they need the Iraqi army to take the lead. I spoke yesterday with Masrour Barzani, who is the head of Kurdistan's security council. He said Kurdish fighters have already driven ISIS out of areas to the north, east and west of Mosul.

MASROUR BARZANI: We have liberated thousands of square kilometers. Now it's time for the Iraqi army to advance from the south toward Mosul. And that is the key. Mosul has to be completely isolated for any effective assault and, let's say, guaranteed operation.

SHAPIRO: And he told me, I wish I could tell you the Iraqi army is ready for that, but it's not.

INSKEEP: Really, Tom Bowman? They're not ready after years of training by U.S. troops?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. has pretty much cherry picked the Iraqi forces that will take part in this operation. And the officer we spoke with yesterday said, listen, they're getting better all the time. But of course, you know, that's questionable. This is an army that basically fell apart last year once the Islamic State started attacking. But with this Mosul operation, one of the things is even if they're not the best, they will have the benefit of having U.S. airstrikes and U.S. surveillance. But are they ready? That's still a question.

INSKEEP: Would U.S. troops have to be involved on the ground?

BOWMAN: That hasn't been resolved yet. There is talk of having some U.S. troops on the ground, such as air controllers to call in airstrikes, some Green Berets to steal their spine - but again, no decisions yet. But people I talk with say expect some U.S. troops on the ground.

INSKEEP: OK, so let's talk about one other thing, Ari Shapiro, because capturing the city is one thing. Holding the city may be something else. ISIS fighters don't seem to be that numerous in Mosul. Maybe you can get an armed force in there. But can they hold the city, given that Iraqi forces have lost it once already?

SHAPIRO: That's a real question. An assault on Mosul has got to be successful and fast. This is a city of 2 million people. And if the operation drags on and is very messy, you could see another million displaced people flooding into northern Iraq, which is a burden this region cannot handle. And there needs to be a plan for who will handle governance and security after ISIS is driven out. Local Sunni Muslims must support the effort, much like how in 2007, during the Iraq War, they helped fight al-Qaida. That means they need to trust that they won't be persecuted again by the Shiite government in Baghdad. And this is where it comes back to resolving those ethnic divisions in Iraq that ISIS exploited in the first place. In short, a lot to do before this operation begins in April or May, which the Pentagon seems to be saying is the timeframe.

INSKEEP: Political as well as military questions. NPR's Ari Shapiro in Iraq, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And Tom Bowman, here in our studios, thanks to you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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