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Trapped Civilians Complicate U.S. Efforts in Northern Syria And Iraq


We begin this morning with the U.S. effort to push the Islamic State out of Iraq and Syria. Mosul is proving to be an especially brutal battle. The U.S. is helping the Iraqi forces with trainers, special operations and airstrikes. But waging a war in the middle of a city brings inevitable civilian casualties. And American officials say it appears one of those airstrikes in Mosul may have led to the deaths of more than a hundred civilians, including children. For more details, NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is here with me in the studio. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What more have we learned about that airstrike on Mosul?

BOWMAN: Well, Rachel, here's what the Pentagon says happened. It was targeting ISIS fighters and equipment on March 17 in west Mosul at the request of Iraqi government fighters. Now, the Pentagon says that this airstrike hit at the location, quote, "corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties." And they say it'll take three weeks to figure out what happened. Now, local officials say it appears that there were a large number of civilians, maybe well over a hundred - upwards of 200 - in the basement of this building hit.

And officials I talk with say, listen, we don't know if it was a U.S. airstrike that hit the building or the airstrike maybe hit a car or truck bomb that may have brought the building down. But this death toll is among the highest in a long time. I was doing a bit of research. And you have to go back to maybe the first Iraq War, in 1991, when a British airstrike - it was trying to hit a bridge. It missed. It hit a neighborhood, and 130 were killed. So this is - this is really huge.

MARTIN: It speaks to how complicated this effort in Mosul is because it's such a concentrated city. And there is the risk of all these civilian casualties. We should note, this comes on the heel of other airstrikes where civilians have died, right? Apparently that same operation that killed a Navy SEAL in Yemen, local media say airstrikes killed women and children. There was this mosque in Syria, where local residents say civilians died as well. Is there any connection here? I mean, have the U.S. rules of engagement been relaxed in some way?

BOWMAN: Well, we do know the Trump administration is looking at taking a harder line against terrorists. And part of that is considering relaxing the strict rules on airstrikes under the Obama administration. And officials say the rules have not been relaxed yet, and they of course say that they take great care not to harm civilians. What's going to be difficult, however, is retaking Mosul. You're talking about a teeming city with maybe 200,000 or 400,000 civilians trapped there, narrow streets, hunkered down ISIS fighters who may fight to the end, and their - they estimate 1,000 to 2,000 fighters.

And in some cases, you have booby-trapped buildings, buildings where they're using civilians as human shields. And urban battles are the toughest of any of them.


BOWMAN: And you look back on the battle of Fallujah, you know, back during the Iraq War. You look at Hue City in Vietnam or Stalingrad in World War II; it's difficult to use airstrikes to help advancing troops. The alternative, of course, is to send in ground troops with really no air cover. And it's going to be hard for them to root out the enemy building by building.

MARTIN: So let's pivot a little bit because we've been hearing for months that the key to getting rid of ISIS altogether is to move on Raqqa in Syria, right? This is the center of the caliphate that ISIS wants to establish. Where is that effort at this point?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. is helping its Arab and Kurdish allies squeeze the approaches to Raqqa. They're cutting off roads, and they're using airstrikes. There were just nine more airstrikes today against everything from fighting positions to car bombs. You already have hundreds of other American trainers and special operators in Syria working with these Kurdish and Arab forces. And the Pentagon is considering sending hundreds more for this final assault on Raqqa. But I'm told Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has not signed off on it yet.

MARTIN: So hundreds are already there, hundreds more possible to go. But it's not a ground war?

BOWMAN: That's right. They call these trainers, and some of them are involved in actual combat of accompanying some of these forces close to the frontlines. But again, they'll be doing more training, more special operations forces actually going to the last point of concealment, they say. So it's - a good number of them are going to be actually in harm's way.

MARTIN: And just briefly, the U.S. isn't doing this alone, right? There are partnerships. The U.S. has been working with Turkey very closely against ISIS. But the Turks don't want the Syrian Kurds to be part of any of this.

BOWMAN: That's right. This is one of the most sensitive issues of all in the battle against ISIS.


BOWMAN: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Turkey this week. And this will all be raised. The Turks consider these Kurdish fighters terrorists.


BOWMAN: ...Linked to groups in Turkey. The Americans say they're our best fighters; we need them.

MARTIN: NPR's Tom Bowman. Thanks so much, Tom.

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

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.