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Iraqi Forces Approach Outskirts Of ISIS-Held Mosul

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Displaced people stand on the back of a truck Tuesday at a checkpoint near Qayara, south of Mosul, Iraq,

Iraqi security forces are closing in on the city of Mosul. It's a pivotal offensive for the U.S.-backed troops, and the last major ISIS-held urban center in the country hangs in the balance.

The forces have pushed through ISIS-held territory more quickly than expected, reaching the edge of the city in what is a "huge psychological moment for Iraq," NPR's Alice Fordham reports. ISIS fighters took control of Mosul, one of the biggest cities in Iraq, more than two years ago in what was an embarrassing defeat for Iraqi government forces.

"Elite counterterror forces are now on the eastern edge of the city," Alice reports from northern Iraq. "There are slightly different definitions of where the city begins — which area is a village outside, and which area is a neighborhood of the city — but either way, they're there or they will be once they advance a few hundred more meters, and they are moving pretty fast."

The Iraqi forces — which include the elite counterterrorism forces, the Iraqi army and Kurdish fighters — are approaching the city from multiple directions. And while the fighters on the eastern front are almost inside Mosul, "it's important to note that the southern and the western fronts still have a ways to go," Alice adds.

The fighters are backed by a U.S.-led coalition that is providing advisers on the ground and air support. The coalition says it is not involved in ground combat.

Meanwhile, concern is growing about the hundreds of thousands of civilians still in Mosul. The U.N. has cited reports that emerged last week that ISIS is rounding up tens of thousands of civilians from nearby areas and bringing them into the city to use as human shields.

Alice says that's backed up by witness reports from inside the city, "who say they have indeed seen and spoken to people who have been forcibly displaced from villages south of the city and brought up to Mosul." Here's more:

"They're living in abandoned buildings now. They said that they were tricked into coming — they were told they'd only be leaving their homes for a short time. We presume that they will be used as human shields — that's something I've seen myself before in another Iraqi city, Ramadi, and ISIS have done this in other places.

"And people inside Mosul confirm to us also that there are thousands of ISIS fighters there. They have erected defenses and they have dug tunnels under houses that we now know go on for miles in some cases."

Meanwhile, as fighting intensifies near the city itself, human rights groups fear how the violence will impact civilians living there.

"The assumption is that ISIS will fight hard for this — this is their most prominent, their most populous city," Alice says. "And accounts from inside the city suggest ISIS still has support there. There's a long-term mistrust of Iraqi authorities inside Mosul."

You can hear Alice's full discussion on Morning Edition here:

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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