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In Iraq, Fight To Retake Mosul From ISIS Appears To Be In Its Final Stages

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Iraq's prime minister is congratulating troops on the big victory in Mosul. Haider al-Abadi spoke as U.S. commanders say the fight to retake Mosul isn't quite done. Mosul, as a reminder, is Iraq's second-largest city. It is the last major city where ISIS controls territory in Iraq. And we reached the man commanding coalition ground forces there. Major General Joseph Martin is land component commander for the 23 countries fighting alongside Iraqi forces. We caught him in Baghdad via Skype.

Good morning, good to speak to you.

JOSEPH MARTIN: Good to speak to you, too.

KELLY: Update us on the battle for Mosul, on where things stand and how much fighting there is left to do.

MARTIN: Well, in the battle to liberate Mosul, we're in the final stages of that. The Iraqi security forces are making progress each and every day. They've got ISIS surrounded in the Old City area of Mosul on the west side of the river.

KELLY: This is the Tigris River that runs along through Mosul.

MARTIN: The Tigris River. And so they're continuing to take more and more terrain each and every day.

KELLY: Do you have an estimate of how many ISIS fighters are still inside Mosul?

MARTIN: Mary Louise, it's tough to tell how many fighters are there. But I can tell you each day, their numbers are getting less and less as the Iraqis continue to make progress.

KELLY: Where are the ISIS fighters who you have driven out of Mosul going?

MARTIN: They're trapped. They're not going anywhere. They've got two choices, Mary Louise. They're either going to surrender or they're going to die. They don't have a place to escape to.

KELLY: Can you give us a sense of whether the city is functioning at all at this point? I mean, this is a battle of grinding urban warfare that has been going for eight months. Paint us a picture of what it is like on the ground there.

MARTIN: I'd love to. I visit Mosul at least once a week. I'm amazed at the progress in terms of re-establishing essential services, markets standing up. We're seeing asphalt being repaired. And the numbers of vehicles - cabs, trucks, buses, commodities - and people are flowing into Mosul not out of Mosul.

KELLY: But from a military standpoint, how are you able to gauge that the people going in are civilians as opposed to enemy combatants who are coming back into the city?

MARTIN: It's pretty easy to see exactly who's walking in. You've got work crews that are on the ground in this work program where they're cleaning up the rubble. They're cleaning up the roads. They're planting trees on the road leading into the city. There's families moving back towards Mosul in public transportation, taxis. In some cases, they're walking.

KELLY: As you know well, there has been a heavy cost of this fight for Mosul in blood spilled and lives lost. I wonder, looking forward, General, what lessons have been learned, as you see it. Are there rules of engagement that should change in similar conflicts going forward?

MARTIN: Mary Louise, there's there's been no change to our mission. There's been no change to the rules of engagement. What's changing is we're eliminating Daesh.

KELLY: The acronym for ISIS.

MARTIN: That's correct. And so what's changing is their influence and their stranglehold on the people of this country. They're the reason that the Iraqi security forces are in Mosul. They're the reason that we're here supporting the Iraqi security forces. And Mosul will be the next step. And then beyond that, there are some other places that still are yet to be liberated. But we'll be there side by side with the Iraqis as we do that.

KELLY: The challenge of course, whether it's Iraqi forces or the broader coalition forces you command, is that it is one thing to take a city. It is another thing to hold it. What plans are in place to ensure that two years from now, five years from now, you and I aren't back having this same conversation about retaking Mosul again?

MARTIN: Well, Mary Louise, I would ask you to take a look at the rest of the 40,000 square kilometers that the Iraqi security forces have liberated to date and what they've done to secure that terrain while they've continued to conduct offensive operations. East Mosul is a microcosm of that example. They have put whole forces in place. And they've held it while the enemy has indiscriminately fired in excess of 7,000 rounds of indirect fires on the liberated population and the population under their control on the west side. They've tried, in several occasions, to destabilize other environments. But the Iraqi security forces have been there to squash that out each and every time.

KELLY: That's Major General Joseph Martin. He is the commanding general of Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command in Iraq. General Martin, thank you. Stay safe.

MARTIN: Thank you, Mary Louise. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.