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Iraqi Forces Fight Their Way Toward Mosul For Crucial Battle Against ISIS

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A Peshmerga convoy drives toward a frontline on Monday in Khazer, about 19 miles east of Mosul, Iraq.

The long-awaited Iraqi military offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS has begun.

Backed by U.S. air support, Iraqi army troops and allied Kurdish fighters are advancing on the city from two fronts, the south and northeast, as NPR's Alice Fordham tells Morning Edition. They say they're making progress but face resistance from ISIS militants who have been in control of the area for more than two years.

The battle could be a watershed moment in the fight against the Islamic State. Mosul — one of Iraq's largest cities — is the last major urban center in the country under ISIS control, as Alice reports: "It's tremendously important, both strategically and symbolically, to take back Mosul from ISIS."

It's expected to be a difficult fight for Iraq's security forces, which suffered a rapid and humiliating defeat there two years ago. Mosul is much larger than other recently liberated cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced the operation in a televised speech, vowing that ISIS will be defeated by the end of 2016, as The Two-Way has reported.

"Mosul will be a hard fight, but the Iraqi security forces are ready. They've been waiting to liberate Mosul for two years, and today is the day," U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the top general of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq, said in a statement. The coalition is providing air support and advisers on the ground but is not participating in fighting.

Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are pushing toward Mosul from the northeast, as Alice explains, while a force primarily composed of Iraqi army troops is advancing from the south. Here's more from Alice:

"It's important to note that they're not all that close to the city itself right now. They're 20 or 30 miles away in some places, and what they're going to have to do is fight their way through territory which is mostly village — some abandoned, some not abandoned — all currently held by ISIS. The various forces are reporting progress, but it doesn't seem very rapid."

And it could take weeks or months to wrest control of the city from the estimated 3,000 to 8,000 ISIS fighters that remain there, she says. The militants have had two years to prepare for this fight and booby-trap the city, and residents who have recently fled "describe concrete defenses that have been erected, trenches and tunnels," Alice says.

Hundreds of thousands or even a million civilians are believed to remain in Mosul, and there's widespread concern about how they will be impacted by what promises to be a fierce battle.

"They have been urged to stay in their houses in leaflets that have been dropped from the sky by the Iraq security forces, but we hear from inside that a lot of people are secretly making plans to run away," Alice reports. "And if they do that, there may be no safe route out and aid agencies could be overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of displaced people that they don't really have the capacity to help."

At least 27 camps and emergency sites have been set up, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and 1.2 to 1.5 million people around Mosul could be impacted by the military operations. Here's more from the U.N. on the dangers posed to civilians:

"Civilians in Mosul could face multiple threats from cross-fire, sniper attacks, booby traps and explosive remnants of war (ERW). Responders fear that tens of thousands of Iraqi girls, boys, women and men may be forcibly expelled, trapped between conflict lines, held under siege or used as human shields."

If the military operations succeed in liberating Mosul while also guaranteeing the safety of its residents, Alice says that "it will do a lot to restore relations between people in Iraq and their security forces and government which, especially in Mosul, have not been good for a long time."

You can listen to Alice's full conversation with Morning Edition here:

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