Iraqi forces and their allies have finally launched an offensive on the northern city of Mosul to retake it from ISIS. Tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces and their allies are moving toward the city. They're getting help from U.S. airstrikes and advisers on the ground.
ISIS has responded with suicide bombers and car bombs. They've killed and wounded several Iraqi soldiers. So far Iraqi forces have captured several villages and advanced a few miles closer to Mosul, though the battle could take weeks or even months. NPR's Alice Fordham is reporting from Irbil in northern Iraq, and she's with us now. Hi there.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So remind us why this operation to retake Mosul is so important.
FORDHAM: Well, Mosul is by far the largest city that ISIS holds now, and they've had it for more than two years after Iraq's security forces essentially abandoned it. They took it in a very swift assault. There's a lot of people still living there — at least 800,000 by most estimates, maybe a million, maybe more. And if this battle is won, then ISIS will be essentially defeated in urban Iraq. And that means that their claim to be a state looks a lot less viable.
MCEVERS: Was there anything about the fighting today that gives us a hint of what might be coming?
FORDHAM: Yeah, well, as you said, there was considerable resistance from ISIS fighters as the Iraqi security forces were moving into these little villages. So what we know is that the two main branches of the Iraqi security forces — the army and the ethnic Kurdish forces called the Peshmerga — they coordinated to move closer to Mosul, and that in itself is quite unusual and indicates that they should be able to cooperate better than they usually do for this crucial battle.
But looking at the operations today could indicate there is going to be a difficult fight ahead. These are small villages. Some of them were totally depopulated. And still ISIS was small in numbers, but they slowed down these advances with more mortars, multiple suicide attacks. And if it's slow going through these villages, it does look like retaking Mosul — and ISIS have had two years to dig in — could be very difficult.
MCEVERS: Do we know anything about what it's like for the people who are inside Mosul?
FORDHAM: Yeah, it is very hard to get information. ISIS punishes people for communicating with the outside world. But we did actually manage to get in touch with someone there today who described a spooky, deserted feel to the streets there. All the civilians stay in their houses. He presumes all the ISIS guys have moved to the defenses.
They have also closed off the bridges over the River Tigris with concrete barriers. Again, he thinks this is to discourage residents and ISIS fighters from running away, from fleeing the city.
MCEVERS: If people did flee, where are they going to go?
FORDHAM: Well, Iraqi security forces have been trying to encourage them to stay in their homes. They have been dropping leaflets telling people to do that. But the United Nations briefed us today that if the fighting becomes intense, the security forces are going to try to ensure safe passage out. They're keeping the details a secret. In previous operations the details were well-known, and ISIS exploited that information. They were targeting people who were leaving.
And if this displacement happens, it's not expected to be for a week or so, which tells us something about how difficult that fight toward Mosul could be. The U.N. is still scrambling to build camps to hold all these people. They have about six, and they are preparing maybe something in the region of 16 more.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Alice Fordham in northern Iraq. Thank you very much.
FORDHAM: Thanks for having me, Kelly.